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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

 

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith
Director:
Chris Columbus

Rating: PG

Studio: Warner Bros.

Review Posted: 11.15.02

Spoilers: Minor

Rating: 2.5/4

 

By Sara M. Fetters.

 

"Chamber of Secrets Reveals Adventure Slowly"

 

A day before his birthday – and just a few scant more before he returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is visited by a masochistic House Elf named Dobby. After beating himself up considerably, he reveals to the startled wizard that if Potter returns to his beloved house of learning for his second year he will suffer an unimaginable and painful death.

 

With that, we are once more whisked into author J.K. Rowling ‘s imaginative world of warlocks and enchantresses. Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, the second of the author’s acclaimed series, begins on this ominous note, and after a deliriously silly flight in a flying car named “Edsel,” it quickly delves into darker territory. Blood is splattered on walls, pre-teen students are turned to stone, a Poltergeist-ian tree tries to smash our heroes, spiders rampage across the Dark Forest and a giant snake cruises menacingly through dank catacombs.

 

I should be clear upfront – I’ve only read the first of the Potter novels, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, and as such can’t really be counted as much of a fan of the series. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the novel – I did, very much – I’ve just never felt all that compelled to continue with the adventures of inquisitive wizard-in-training. Maybe it is the way the novels all feel rather “paint-by-number-ish” in their storytelling, maybe it is because – as imaginative as they are – there really isn’t any substantive weight to all that is going on. I really can’t say what the answer is, I just know I’ve stopped at one and don’t really have any strong inclination to pick up number two.

 

I felt much the same with director Chris Columbus’ first take on Potter, last year’s monster smash Sorcerer’s Stone. I enjoyed it for the most part, but couldn’t help but think that for all the theatrical flourishes and bigger-than-life special effects, not much interesting was really ever going on.

 

It didn’t help that the supporting characters around Potter were far more interesting that he was, especially fellow trainees Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Gint). Granger, in particular, stole the show the first time out. Plucky and determined, a deliciously droll scowl or smirk constantly at the ready, she was the real star of the first adventure and the plucky young Watson captured her essence perfectly.

 

At first, Chamber of Secrets seems to be heading in the same problematic direction as the first film by making Potter an inconsequential presence. Introductions to new characters such as the snide Lucious Malfoy (a wonderfully wicked Jason Isaacs) and the new Master of the Dark Arts Gilderoy Lockhart (brilliantly played with just the right levels of pomposity, arrogance and clueless ness by Kenneth Branagh) push Harry from the forefront, and Ron and Hermione once more start the film far more interesting – and entertaining – than our young hero.

 

Luckily, though, this gradually changes as it begins to unfurl. Radcliffe really seems to be growing into the role, and Steve Kloves screenplay finally thrusts him front and center placing Chamber of Secrets full attention upon him. It just takes so ponderously long for the movie to actually do so. At one point, amongst children being turned to stone and the potentially lethal shrieking of mandrakes, a character exclaims that, “terrible things are about to happen.” My response to that was that if terrible things are about to happen, couldn’t they just happen already? My butt was getting tired.

 

Granted, some really dark and terrible things do indeed happen in this adventure, and when Columbus sets his mind to it, Chamber of Secrets can be scary fun indeed. (So scary, in fact, I’m not sure very-young children are going to be able to handle it. Parents be warned.) A journey into the dark forest by Harry and Ron to visit the ancient spider Aragog is truly frightening; the resulting pursuit out of the forest as the spider’s hungry brood thunderously hunts them down even more so (Eight Legged Freaks eat your hear out – this is really how to do marauding giant spiders). Also quite excellently realized is a gigantic basilisk, its fight with Harry a heart-stopping affair.

 

It is also nice to see much of the cream of Britain’s acting crop hitting their marks. Robbie Coltraine, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, John Cleese and Miriam Margolyes make spirited appearances. And, in his final screen showcase, Richard Harris movingly presides over the film as the wise and kindly Professor Dumbledore. As he explains lovingly to Harry about the life cycle of his beloved Phoenix Fawkes, I was almost moved to tears.

 

But at 161 minutes – a full nine minutes longer than the first film – Chamber of Secrets is far too long and sure to test the patience of child and adult alike. Also, the sense of wonder from the first film, like most sequels, is absent this time around. There is no getting around that – while the are supremely impressive – much of this movie feels like nothing more than a widescreen special effects fest.

 

Don’t get me wrong, there is a great film rooting around in this second Harry Potter adventure. If it were 40 minutes shorter, I’m sure it would have been realized.

 

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