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HARRY POTTER AND
THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

(2002)
With Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, John Cleese
Directed Chris Colombus
Reviewed by JL and JB

      JL: The second installment in the Harry Potter film series is something of an improvement over the first in terms of both laughs and suspense, though it still feels a bit cluttered with unnecessary detail, the result of director Chris Columbus's attempts to please the millions of Harryphiles throughout the world. And yet, somehow, it works not only despite the clutter, but because of it.  I can't complain that a film is loaded with too much detail when the details are so consistently entertaining.  It's that the details tend to overwhelm after a while, much like an early Woody Allen film that leaves you exhausted from laughter well before the laughs are exhausted. That the Potter films manage to satisfy old geezers like me, who still prefer movies with interesting characters and thematic depth, is one of the joys of the series and something from which other modern filmmakers could learn a thing or two.  My seven-year-old can drag me to see junk like THE FANTASTIC FOUR, a film I completely forgot three minutes after leaving the theater (Jessica Alba notwithstanding), but weeks after seeing one of the Potter films, it's still tossing around in my brain.

They wanted a different Darks Arts teacher, but Liberace wasn't available     One constant in the series is that Defense-Against-the-Dark-Arts instructors don't last long at Hogwarts.  Because of this, the position has become the "guest-star" role of the series, and Kenneth Branagh makes the most of his turn as the vain and preening (and hopelessly inept) Gilderoy Lockhart.  Branagh is obviously having a grand old time hamming it up, providing most of the film's comic relief -- although Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout garners her share of laughs (when she's not being upstaged by those gruesome little mandrakes), and the computer-generated Dobby the House Elf is so annoying, he's hilarious.  There's also Shirley Henderson as the lavatory-dwelling specter Moaning Myrtle, who delivers my favorite line in the film ("Harry, if you die down there, you're welcome to share my toilet!").

     Despite its comic moments, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS is, like all the books and films in the series, a darker tale than the one that precedes it.  As the groundwork is gradually laid for Harry's final confrontation with Lord Voldemort, the intricacies of J.K. Rowling's seven-novel saga are revealed to be brilliantly intertwined.  What is left hanging in one film is explained in the next (or the one thereafter), and such moments never suffer from the sort of contrivances that tend to plague sequels.  It's all part of Rowling's grand design, and it's yet another element that adds depth to the series.  (As an example, why does the Sorting Hat almost assign Harry to the House of Slytherin in THE SORCERER'S STONE?  We don't question it in the first film, yet when it's explained in Chamber of Secrets, it's a neat little "Oohh!" moment.)

    As good as the first two Potter films were, the best was yet to come.  Chris Columbus's decision to promote himself to the producer's chair and turn the directorial reins over to others was a wise one, as even Columbus admitted he was perhaps too literal-minded for the subject matter.  He did an excellent job of adapting Rowling's novels to the screen, but others would succeed better at realizing Rowling's magic and enchantment. - JL


And cancel Christmas!     JB: HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS is an entertaining sequel to THE SORCERER'S STONE and yet another example of the care in which everybody involved took to bring J. K. Rowling's novel to the screen.  The three main child stars are even better the second time around and, in fact, here is as good a place to mention how well all the child parts have been cast, with a special tip of the wizard's cap to Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom, friend of the Potter Trio.  Even in films that last over two hours, Lewis is still given only a few minutes to establish the shy, ineffectual Longbottom as a sympathetic character, yet he pulls it off effortlessly every time.  

          Again, the adult cast also shines.  Aside from the expected good work by Richard Harris and Maggie Smith, there is once again Alan Rickman, perfectly loathsome as Professor Snape, and Jason Isaacs, who is almost Rickman's equal as the vaguely vampirish Lucius Malfoy.  Strange how the James Bond series hasn't given us a decent bad guy in years, yet the Harry Potter series has room for two such villainous rogues in the same movie. (I'm not saying either one is really working for the Dark Side - all that is up in the air at this point in the series.)  Kenneth Branagh's amusing performance has already been mentioned, so I will champion Mark Williams as Ron's father, Arthur Weasley, a wholly lovable character who is on screen for much too short a time.  Can we have some more of him, please?

"Dumbledore sent me to do sum green-screen work..."     But what is up with the lovable giant Hagrid, played by my favorite Potter stock company member Robbie Coltrane?  Look closely and you will see that it is extremely rare that Hagrid/Coltrane is even in the same shot as any of the leads.  There are so many shots of him from behind or sideways that I suspect a good deal of Coltrane's work was actually done by stand-ins, with his lines flown in later.   Part of the charm of THE SORCERER'S STONE came from the ease with which Robbie Coltrane worked with the three kids, but much of that is missing from CHAMBER OF SECRETS.

     Although THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS has most of the elements that made HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE a complete success, it lacks important one:  freshness.  The story bears a strong resemblance to that of THE SORCERER'S STONE, with the three leads trying to discover something hidden deep inside the Hogwarts school, and Harry eventually winding up face to face with Lord Voldemort (You-Know-Who for short).  The sense of wonder that ran all through THE SORCERER'S STONE is a bit strained here, as we are asked to be delighted by two of the most obnoxious Potter characters yet: the ghostly and squeaky-voiced Moaning Myrtle and the all-CGI and all-annoying Dobby the House Elf.  THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS also features a preposterous deus ex machina rescue of Harry and Ron from a cave of hungry spiders and, as in SORCERER'S STONE, when the story is finished, there are so many loose ends, Dumbledore has to verbally explain everything.  To be fair, many of these things stem from Rowling's own writing, but rather than slavishly follow every page of the book, screenwriter Steven Kloves should have tried to tidy things up for the film version.

      The cast and more than a handful of memorable magical setpieces make THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS worth watching, even rewatching multiple times, but it often feels like a retread of the original story rather than part of an ongoing epic series. Like Ron's flying car stuck in the Whomping Willow (oh, just see the film already!), HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS is the series spinning its wheels before it really takes off. ½ - JB

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