Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Review by Jay Pinkerton

View This Trailer

I hope you'll forgive me for talking a bit more about Harry Potter the phenomenon than Harry Potter the new trailer, but in this case I think I have to. Why? Because I don't actually know who the hell the target audience of the latest film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is supposed to be. It's difficult for me to judge how well a trailer sells a film to its intended market if it's unclear who the market actually is: attention-deprived kids, or their taste-deprived parents?

Is the Harry Potter series for kids, or what? If so, the trailer rocks. It does quick cuts on all the old characters so we know they're back, and it introduces a few new ones (like Kenneth Branagh, who clearly needed a non-Shakespeare film to help pay for the new pool). It's got kids racing around on brooms, and little imp demon things flying all over the place. It's a jump-cutted sugar-spasm of a coming attraction.

(As an aside, it's also got an odd shot of Harry Potter's face bubbling up, which is kind of repellant and spooky-looking. I've never read the books, so I'm at a loss on this. Does he get stung by a hornet or something? If so, a tip for the kids: if you see a hornet's nest in your chamber of secrets, tell your legal guardian. Don't attempt to get rid of it yourself.)

Anyway: if you're under ten - pow zoom, what a good trailer!

If you're an adult, however, thenů then I don't know what to tell you. It's got kids racing around on brooms, and little imp demon things flying all over the place. It's a jump-cutted sugar-spasm of a coming attraction. Does that sound like something you'd want to invest two hours of time into? If so, why? Please write me and explain. I don't mean to be insulting, but I honestly just don't understand. The few times I've bothered to look into the Harry Potter phenomenon, I can't seem to get past the intensely childish subject matter. I'm not seeing the attraction for otherwise sensible adults.

I don't mean the Potter series is "childish" in that it evokes a sense of child-like wonder in a viewer. I wouldn't fault a person of any age who wanted to recapture that innocence. Rather, I use the term "childish" here in the sense that children aren't terribly smart, and tend to gravitate towards brick-thick movies with irritatingly simplistic storylines that, and I stress this, adults shouldn't want to watch. The last Potter film was about as facile and undemanding as I'd think it possible to make a film, rocketing through its derivative scenes as it did on a sucrose high, actively fighting for the interest of its attention-stunted preteen audience. The trailer for Chamber doesn't indicate the sequel's strayed far from this formula. So why do adults keep flocking to this thing?

It's generally accepted that as we grow out of childhood, our tastes become gradually more sophisticated. (Note I say gradually, thus leaving some wiggle room here for the many rock-stupid things teenagers like.) Our taste in entertainment reflects this, and -- hypothetically, anyway -- we seek out more challenging art forms as we gain maturity. If you watch a movie about a guy who's dying of a genetic disorder, for instance, the main character won't simply face the camera and state: "I'm sad, and here's why." Instead, the filmmaker will use metaphors, lighting, allusions and other devices to give you the freedom to draw your own conclusions. Essentially, you are being given the benefit of the doubt that you're a fully functioning adult capable of working out abstract stuff like this on your own.

Given that most kids need help putting the buttons of their shirts in the right holes, they aren't given this responsibility in their entertainment. It is assumed (perhaps incorrectly, I leave that to you) that children need to be led through an idea, then led through it again, then beaten over the head with it for ten minutes. Films like the Potter series don't so much tell a story as highlight two or three key points and bludgeon its audience into submission with them.

My largest concern with the idea of Potter as a vehicle for adults is that it's a shameless pastiche of other, better scenes from mythology, literature and cinema. The makers of Harry Potter know full well their intended audience has, at most, ten years of experience to fall back on, the majority of this spent guzzling Tang and playing in leaves. So Rowling and Co. don't worry overmuch about getting caught passing off stolen ideas as their own, since the people they're trying to slip it by are most likely crawling under the seats searching for a Milk Dud that rolled away from them. However, when the adult fans don't seem to notice either, it strikes me as a bad sign.

Even worse, however, is that the Potter series doesn't even seem to do much with the subject matter it won't admit to stealing. Take the premise of the film, for instance: that of an awkward, unpopular boy who finds out he's the famousest, bestest hero in fantasy-land. One of the oldest old saws of children's fantasy, it's remained as popular as it has because it plays to the insecurities every child has. I've seen this schtick in countless kid's films (The Neverending Story springs to mind). Yet I can't remember when it's ever been presented with such an enormous lack of subtlety as in Potter. Again, as an eight-year-old, you can be forgiven if you don't notice the ham-fistedness of the delivery. As a thirty-eight year old, however, you should be cringing at the lack of grace with which Potter crams character A into plot device B.

In short, I sincerely hope the Potter series is just for kids, and that the older fans I keep hearing about are just indulgent parents who like sharing their children's interests. Otherwise, come on now, adults -- you should know better and demand more. The logic of a Harry Potter plot is perfectly suited to viewers who appreciate such aspects of cinema as stuff that goes real fast, brightly colored things, and cute animatronic puppets that dance around and fart. In other words, children under eight and people with massive head trauma. If you're neither, for God's sake, stop slumming in the shallow end of the cinematic pool. You know what kids get up to in the shallow end -- don't be surprised if you see a few Hogwarts floating by.