About an hour into this movie, something shocking occurred to me: this Harry Potter movie is better than Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Rings! That's a sad thing to say, especially for a lifelong Tolkien worshipper like me. But facts is facts, and the fact is that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets does what Jackson has so utterly failed to do, creating real excitement at the vision of another, higher world.
For two hours, Chamber of Secrets shows you some wonderful sights-and better still, conveys real hope, fear and risk. Then, unfortunately, the plot has to be tied up and everything goes to Hell. But two good hours is much more than you get from the average movie.
It's not that I'm a Potter fan. As I wrote when reviewing the first Harry Potter book years ago, Rowling's books steal far too much from the work of Diana Wynne Jones. Worse still, the Potter books teach their readers some very nasty lessons: how to find your place in the hierarchy of an English boarding school, how to be the right sort of snob, and always to remember that sport is more important than knowledge. It's a thoroughly unpleasant code, and alas, this second Potter film isn't free of it. Harry may wear glasses, but he still wins the airborne rugby game (though it's more like a Battle of Britain remake, complete with broomstick dogfight, than rugby).
But sports-worship is a minor vice compared with the film's strange revisionist course in snobbery, good and bad. Harry is the right sort of snob: he is shown patronizing an over-eager fag (using the word in its Eton sense) in the properly dismissive manner; this is contrasted with the snarling, overt bullying of the albino yob who plays villain in the film. The bully is played very effectively-but then it's not difficult to get any pubescent boy to play a fascist jerk. Just tell him, "Be yourself."
The father/son albino villains offer a wonderful glimpse of totally confused British notions about egalitarianism and hierarchy in the Blair era. The father speaks with a good BBC upper-class sneer as he pursues his reactionary agenda: purging Hogwarts of "muggbloods," or halfbreeds whose family trees include non-magical folk. But his son speaks, for some reason, in a quasi-cockney accent. Perhaps this is meant to convey to viewers that his notions are uncouth-but if so, the anti-snob message is a bit compromised.
The nastiest character in the film, a "house-elf" named Dobby, offers another lesson in how to snob properly. This wretched elf exemplifies grovelling submission. He looks vaguely like a Wallace & Grommet claymation figure with a hangover, speaks of himself in the third person, and punishes himself for any acts of self-assertion by beating his face with any sharp and heavy objects available. It's loathsome, almost unwatchable. (To be fair, Tolkien did it far more disgustingly; I never could manage to read those parts of LOTR in which Sam maunders tearfully about his sick devotion to "dear Master.")
Dobby's master, the albino reactionary, spares the little wretch the effort by showing up at last to kick and cuff "poor Dobby" himself. Alas, Harry-the GOOD snob, the good Master-frees Dobby.
Harry and his Blairite friends represent the good Masters of the Blair era. So they are, of course, shocked and surprised by the albinos' drive to restrict Hogwarts to those of "pure blood." "'Pure blood'? That's horrible!" says one. Their protests are a bit ironic, since the Potter books have done more to revive the elite English boarding schools than anything since pederasty. But then there's not much point accusing a movie about wizards of being unrealistic. What really rankles about Rowling's anti-snob preaching is that it requires so little divergence from the old, bad snobbery. Mostly it's a matter of manners: patronizing the lesser breeds, rather than kicking them in public. This is how Harry differs from the bully: he drawls, the bully snarls.