- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

NEW YORK — Director Chris Columbus has a quibble with the Quidditch match in his hit film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

It bugs the director (1990's "Home Alone") that the special effects during the match, featuring players astride magic broomsticks, sank below his expectations.

"I didn't feel the characters were integrated well enough into the background," says Mr. Columbus, who directed the film's sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," released today. "This time, we made absolutely certain that we were gonna do that."

Production on "Chamber," based on the book by J.K. Rowling, began just days after "Sorcerer's Stone" hit theaters last November. The adrenalized schedule, a new phenomenon in an era of franchise filmmaking, didn't give cast and crew much time between assignments. Back-to-back filming prevents actors from tackling outside projects and secures sets that can be used from one movie to the next.

Such is the life for those tied to a movie series guaranteed to print money for its studio, Warner Bros.

One advantage of the rushed schedule is quickly righting the wrongs committed the first time around, Mr. Columbus says during press interviews held in Manhattan last month on behalf of the film.

The shoot for "Sorcerer's Stone" left just three months to complete its array of special effects. For "Chamber," the special-effects scenes were shot first, giving the production team about eight months to work some magic of their own.

The Quidditch match in "Chamber" stands as a more polished set piece than its predecessor, testifying to time well spent.

The sequel revisits the world of a boy wizard beloved by children and adults worldwide.

"The first film had about 45 minutes of introduction. In this film we get right into the story," Mr. Columbus says.

The second installment in the Harry Potter film series finds Harry and his chums Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) resuming their studies at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This time, the trio must ward off an evil element looking to shut down the school.

Dobby, a computer-generated "house elf" who alternately stymies Harry and thwacks his head against the nearest wall as self-punishment, makes his first appearance in the film series.

Another new arrival is Professor Lockhart, an ego-stricken dandy given good comic thrust by Kenneth Branagh (2000's "Love's Labour's Lost").

The Potter films never will be confused with high art. Mr. Columbus, a boyish 44, has built a career aimed at the box-office charts, not academe's consideration. With hits like "Stepmom" (1998) and "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), his mainstream sensibilities connect with the Potter series' uncomplicated themes.

"Chamber of Secrets," to hear Mr. Columbus tell it, is the "lost orphan" of the book series.

"We talked to a lot of kids. You ask them, 'What's your favorite Harry Potter book?' 'Chamber of Secrets' never comes up," says Mr. Columbus, whose eyes are set at a slight upward tilt as if expressing perpetual wonderment.

Part of that estrangement could stem from the novel's societal undertones. The director credits Miss Rowling for dealing with cultural stereotypes through the prism of fantasy.

Characters born from either non-magical or half-magic bloodlines are frowned upon by some of the film's villains. "[Miss Rowling] isn't pulling any punches. It's dealing directly with racism," Mr. Columbus says.

The book also paints a darker portrait of Harry's magical world than did its predecessor. That's a plus for a director looking to visualize the meaty text.

"From a cinematic point of view, it had these moments, like the spider sequences, that could be expanded," Mr. Columbus says.

Some of those scenes could leave young viewers clutching their comforters in fear come bedtime, but star Daniel Radcliffe defends the film's murky tone. "It's all in the book. If you take away the darkness in the film, then you haven't done the book justice," he says.

Daniel's voice is deeper than it was in "Sorcerer's Stone," but the new film still leans upon Harry's innocent view of life and the mystical arts.

Producer David Heyman says the role is one to which many can relate. "He's flawed. He comes from a dysfunctional home. He's a bit of an outsider," Mr. Heyman says of young Harry. "I really responded to that."

Mr. Columbus says working with his three main child actors proved easier the second time around, given their growing ease in front of the camera. "They had 150 days on the first film to learn the ropes. On the second film, what used to take us eight or nine takes took two or three," he says.

The lack of downtime between shoots helped keep any budding egos in check.

"We started shooting three days after the first film opened, which for the kids, [meant] their heads never filled with anything like premieres," Mr. Columbus says. "Immediately, boom, they were thrown back to the cold soundstages. I think that helped a great deal."

The increased comfort level felt on "Chamber of Secrets" might be tested during the next Potter shoot, set to start in March.

The film version of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third book in the series, will be helmed by Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien").

Speculation already has begun as to what the switch will mean to the franchise.

"We didn't hire Alfonso because of 'Y Tu Mama Tambien,'" Mr. Columbus says of last year's ribald look at two teenagers' relationship with an older woman.

Instead, Mr. Cuaron's 1995 film, "A Little Princess," convinced Mr. Columbus he was right for the director's chair.

"[Princess] is a beautiful, poetic piece of filmmaking. That was the Alfonso Cuaron we hired," Mr. Columbus says.

But will the young cast respond to a new presence?

"You don't want an Oliver Stone situation where people are throwing cameras and screaming and it's an insane set," Mr. Columbus says. "These kids need comfort and support."

Young Daniel, for one, isn't afraid of the change.

"The most important thing to mention is that Chris is still gonna be around," Daniel says. Mr. Columbus will be on hand as a producer.

The next film undoubtedly will suffer without the steady presence of Richard Harris, the celebrated actor who portrayed Headmaster Dumbledore. Mr. Harris died last month after a battle with Hodgkin's disease.

"I saw Richard a couple of weeks ago, and he didn't look well," Mr. Columbus says of the actor during the interview, held a few weeks before Mr. Harris' death. "But he said to me, 'if you think about recasting me, I'll kill ya,'" he recalls. "He's one of the toughest guys I ever met."

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