Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs

MPAA Rating: PG (for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language)

Running Time: 2:41

Release Date: 11/15/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Now that’s more like it. I felt as much excitement and surprise watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as I felt disappointment watching its predecessor Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Chamber of Secrets is about as vast an improvement as you could want, and amazingly, it is such without changing the formula of the original. Director Chris Columbus has obviously learned from his mistakes, though. Despite the overwhelming financial success of his first film, he hasn’t gone the route most directors would—he hasn’t gotten lazier. In fact, Columbus is at the top of his usually weak game with this film. The storytelling is concise and clear, the special effects (awful in the first movie) are far more convincing, the actors are still keen to their roles, the tone is darker, the peril more imminent and tangible, the adaptation less slavish to its source, and when it all comes together, as trite as it sounds, magic truly does find its way into the film.

It’s a few months after Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and living with the Dursleys is just as miserable as ever. Now, though, he has something to look forward to: returning to school. He hasn’t been able to send any letters to his friends (his aunt and uncle won’t allow magical things to be a part of their life, especially a mail-carrying owl) or received any in return. Add the fact that students aren’t allowed to use magic outside of school, and it makes for a lousy summer holiday. Something strange happens one night. A house-elf named Dobby (voice of Toby Jones) appears in Harry’s bedroom and warns him not to return to Hogwarts or else he will be in great danger of a plot waiting to unfold this school year. To make sure Harry stays out of harm’s way, Dobby flares up the Dursleys' anger toward Harry, who lock him in his room and bar up his window, promising that he’ll never return to school again. Thankfully for him, Harry’s good friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and two of his brothers come to the rescue with a flying car.

That’s just the beginning of Harry’s adventures during his second year at Hogwarts. Soon enough, Harry begins to hear a sinister voice, the groundskeeper’s cat is literally petrified, and writing on the wall announces that “the Chamber of Secrets has been opened.”  So Harry, Ron, and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) need to discover the root of the mysterious chamber before any one of them or their friends become the target of the next attack. The exposition consists only of what’s necessary to get Harry to Hogwarts and the introduction of the Chamber of Secrets plotline. Screenwriter Steve Kloves wisely assumes that Sorcerer’s Stone was all the introduction we needed to these characters and this world. The mystery here is simple: who opened the chamber and is wreaking havoc on the students? With this simple goal, the story starts off right away and stays straightforward, unlike the original which roamed around and eventually got to the point. Kloves also seems less apprehensive to change or eliminate some of the events of the book (in my eyes, the weakest of J.K. Rowling’s series so far but still a great read), giving action sequences a lot more bite (including a Quidditch match that’s intense and uncontrolled, just as you’d imagine the game being played) and streamlining the plot.

The filmmakers seem just as liberated from the burden of audience expectations. Chamber of Secrets, unlike its predecessor, has a personality all its own. Columbus has somehow reinvented the path of the series while keeping the same production values, and the production team is in top form. Since I never really got caught up in the first movie, this felt like my first introduction to this world of magic. All of the things I may have overlooked the first time around suddenly pop out and amaze me. The production design by Stuart Craig is simply superb. Hogwarts Castle is the same character from the first movie, but here, with the help of cinematographer Roger Pratt, it’s menacing and drab, not awe-inspiring and homelike. The most obvious new location is the infamous Chamber of Secrets, which is simply frightening. In my review of Sorcerer’s Stone, I placed most of the blame for the failings of the movie on the special effects (which may have been unfair in retrospect, considering other storytelling problems), but those problems have all but disappeared with this outing. The creatures, including a giant spider and snake, are much more detailed (probably because of the absence of reliance on computer effects), and the flying sequences show little to no seams.

Just as in the first movie, the cast is solid. The three main child actors are coming into their own and look much more comfortable on camera. The adults have always had their roles down pat. Some returning favorites include Alan Rickman as the wicked Professor Snape, Maggie Smith (fortunately playing a much bigger role) as the kindly but strict Professor McGonagall, and Robbie Coltrane (unfortunately playing a much smaller role) as the lovable oaf Hagrid. The late Richard Harris, in one of his last roles, returns as Albus Dumbledore, and his death is a great loss to the future series. Harris captures the headmaster’s equally wise and playful personality this time around. There are three noteworthy additions to the cast. Kenneth Branagh oozes foppish self-indulgence as the egotistical Gilderoy Lockhart, and Jason Isaacs is a villainous delight as Lucius Malfoy, father of Harry’s nemesis Draco (Tom Felton). Then there’s Dobby, the weak point of the special effects but not nearly as annoying as you’d expect him to be.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is, in my mind, the start of the Harry Potter series on film. Maybe I’ll like the original a little more after seeing how it serves this chapter, but it’s ultimately irrelevant to my opinion of this film, which is a dark, scary, wondrous, and incredibly entertaining nightmare of the human imagination.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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