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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

DIRECTOR: Chris Columbus

CAST:

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Sir Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Miriam Margoyles, Richard Griffiths, Warwick Davis, Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, Christian Coulson, Toby Jones (voice of Dobby), Julian Glover (voice of Eragog)

REVIEW:

It’s easy to see how Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets might be an enthralling fantasy adventure for kids- there is comedy, danger, magic, some nice special effects, and a few legitimately exciting scenes- but like its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone , what it has to offer for adults is a mixed bag, and the movie doesn’t work as well as it could have. Certainly the running time- or perhaps more the pace- is a factor; Chamber of Secrets runs over two-and-a-half-hours. That isn’t substantially longer than the other installments in the series, but the chunky, sluggish middle section makes it seem longer than the others. For those who sit through quite a lot of tedium, the final third or so is where most of the good stuff starts happening, but the fact that too much of what comes before it feels like a chore to sit through stops Chamber of Secrets from ascending too high among the Harry Potter entries.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is looking forward to once again escaping from his obnoxious relatives the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Henry Melling) and beginning his second year at Hogwarts, especially being reunited with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), but someone is plotting against him. A house-elf named Dobby (voice of Toby Jones) shows up in his bedroom to warn him that he is in danger, and uses increasingly drastic methods to thwart Harry’s return to Hogwarts. Once Harry makes it back to school (with a little help from a flying car), he finds that many of the familiar faculty are still on hand, including Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris, who passed away a few weeks before the film’s release), stern Professor McGonogall (Maggie Smith), and the humorless, unwelcoming Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). There are also a couple of additions, including Madame Sprout (Miriam Margoyles), who teaches herbology, and celebrity wizard Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), who’s more interested in answering his fan mail and selling his autobiography (the modestly named Magical Me) than teaching his students how to defend against the dark arts. In addition to Snape and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry also meets a new antagonist in the form of Draco’s father Lucius (the deliciously evil Jason Isaacs). And as before, he soon finds a new mystery to worry about, as students start turning up petrified and talk flies about cryptic messages on walls and monsters loose in the school. Harry suspects the Malfoys have something to do with the sinister events, or worse, that he may have inadvertently triggered them himself.

Chamber of Secrets is a little more ambitious than Sorcerer’s Stone, but it only partially succeeds at chewing what it has bitten off. Part of the problem is that director Chris Columbus brings the same deficiencies to Chamber that he did to Sorcerer; a lack of independent vision and imagination. Most of the same flaws and virtues in Sorcerer are present in Chamber, only more magnified. The best scenes Chamber has to offer are better than the best of Sorcerer. Columbus displays more flair in the action-oriented sequences, and overall there is a sense that the filmmakers, having seen their introductory episode of the Harry Potter series met with general enthusiasm, are more confident this time. The special effects and choreography during the Quidditch match are more polished, although once again showing an entire Quidditch match from beginning to end gets a little tedious. Like Sorcerer, Chamber is 99% faithful to J.K. Rowling’s text (the most significant bits chosen for omission, a subplot involving Ron’s self-important brother Percy and a party thrown by John Cleese’s ghost Nearly Headless Nick, are also the most superfluous). On the one hand, it’s in a way admirable that Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves adhere with such fidelity to Rowling’s written work. On the other, their determination to include virtually every little detail, even those without great relevance or significance, for the sake of being faithful, is part of the reason the movie is so long and sluggish. Another reason is because Columbus just rarely livens things up. At its best, Chamber finds the spirit of fun and adventure that makes the Harry Potter books so infectiously popular. At its worst, it’s leaden and boring.

Chamber of Secrets begins promisingly. We start out with the requisite Dursley prologue, back in Roald Dahl-esque territory (this time they resort to putting bars on Harry’s window to stop him from rejoining his ‘freaky friends’). We stay in fast-moving high comedy territory for the opening twenty minutes or so, with Ron and his brothers (James and Oliver Phelps) rescuing Harry in a flying car that almost gets run over by the Hogwarts Express (there is one priceless moment in which Harry’s owl spots the oncoming train, and its eyes bulge in horror). We’re also quickly introduced to two great new characters: Gilderoy Lockhart is a delightful comedic/satirical creation (as caricaturish as he might seem, he is, scarily enough, the one character Rowling claims to have based on an actual person), and Lucius Malfoy almost makes Draco seem like a pleasant, charming individual. With his ice-cold glare and cruel sneer, he’s more intimidating than anyone in Sorcerer’s Stone. But Chamber’s running length and pacing results in a movie that spends a lot of time feeling like it’s spinning its wheels. There is an interminable amount of Harry, Ron, and Hermione attending classes, playing Quidditch, having skirmishes in the hallway with Draco and his goons, and a lot of other material that feels like a lot of aimless meandering. At times, Chamber of Secrets‘ sluggish and sizable middle act feels interminable, with only the entertaining Kenneth Branagh and the ever-hissable Jason Isaacs to liven things up. When it shifts into its final act, Chamber of Secrets regains what it had at the beginning- a sense of fun and adventure that’s almost enough to make up for a lot of what passed beforehand. The beginning and climax of Chamber of Secrets is a fast-moving, enjoyable, fantastic adventure that will likely dazzle kids and entertain adults alike. Harry and Ron’s encounter with a bunch of large, hungry spiders is far and away more thrilling than the encounter with the mountain troll or the three-headed dog in Sorcerer’s Stone, and then it’s surpassed by Harry’s climactic battle with an enormous serpent. With only a couple unconvincing moments, the special effects are excellent, and the movie kicks into high gear. At its very best, Chamber is delightful fantasy adventure. It’s just unfortunate that it loses the steam it starts with and sputters on for a solid hour or so before picking it back up.

The three young leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, are adequate but not exceptional. Radcliffe seems a little more confident and polished than in Sorcerer’s Stone, and he and Watson mostly get by on their earnest seriousness, while Grint’s tendency to screw his face up into expressions of petrified terror gets a little tiresome.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione are a likable trio, which is the most important thing, and these aren’t roles that require tremendous stretches of emotional range.

All of the returning adult Harry Potter veterans are reliable, and two new additions also make an impression. Kenneth Branagh is sometimes hilarious as the preening, self-absorbed, inept Gilderoy Lockhart (watch for little details, like the painting of himself painting himself), inflating every expression and line of dialogue with a delicious pompousness. The other notable newcomer is Jason Isaacs, looking coolly evil in a long white wig and honing his sneer, which got plenty of practice in The Patriot, to a fine icily disdainful edge. Isaacs makes his every word drip with such contempt that it seems he can hardly deign to speak them. As the other most prominent more-or-less villain, Draco, Tom Felton snarls and sneers and scrunches up his face like a scenery-chomper in training, and then we have Christian Coulson rounding out the villain quotient as the surprise bonus baddie. Neither of them approaches Isaacs, who’s practically the king of oh-so-British moustache-twirling nefariousness, but they take enthusiastic stabs at it.

There are some clever amusing bits, such as the Howler, a dreaded red envelope that arrives from home and when opened starts screaming some furious message from Mom and Dad, a hostile tree called the Whomping Willow that doesn’t take kindly to being invaded by the Weasleys’ flying car (this scene ends hilariously with the car, as if saying it’s taken enough abuse, jettisoning its passengers, followed by their luggage and making its escape into the forest), and a scene in which Harry and Ron try to spy on Draco by brewing a potion that disguises them as his two lackeys. Less entertaining are Dobby the masochistic house elf (he feels the need to punish himself with the nearest blunt object whenever he says something he wasn’t supposed to), whose self-abusing fits get tiresome a while before the last of them, and the even more annoying Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), a moody ghost who resides in the girl’s bathroom. More interestingly, Chamber of Secrets also expands on an aspect of the wizarding world only touched on briefly in Sorcerer’s Stone- the tension between those who uphold their ‘pureblood’ family backgrounds as marks of superiority (few more fervently than the Malfoys) and those they deride as ‘mudbloods’ (including Hermione, though she’s plainly at least as magically gifted as Draco and probably more so) for having Muggle (in Potter terminology, non-magical, like the audience members) parentage. This plot point inserts a hint of something darker into an otherwise fairly light and juvenile fantasy adventure, and is one of the things that might speak more to the parents than their children; the parallels with Nazi race purity laws aren’t subtle.  As in Sorcerer’s Stone, there is a moderately intriguing mystery underpinning to the story involving old secrets, hidden chambers, and surprise villains, and we learn a little more about Harry’s would-be murderer Lord Voldemort before the end credits roll. Familiarity with the first installment is needed; Sorcerer introduced us into this world and these characters, while Chamber plunges them straight into their next adventure.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has a lot of clear flaws and virtues. J.K. Rowling’s vivid imagination shines through, the story is somewhat more complex and ambitious, and the climax outdoes that in the last movie. It provides enough surprises and discoveries to satisfy many fantasy lovers, and if the running time makes the kids fidgety, they should have their attention recaptured by the spiders and the Basilisk. For parents, it’s nothing earth-shattering but should be at least moderately diverting, if not as enthralling as it might be for their children. Chamber would be Columbus’ last stint as director in the Harry Potter series, and the next installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , would be a significantly more streamlined, atmospheric, and purposeful film.

***

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