Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (United States/United Kingdom, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's no question that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is designed more for fans of the book than for those who have never picked up a J.K. Rowling tome. However, while that makes sense financially (after all, the target audience represents those children and adults who have gobbled up the novels), it opens up some questions about the creative side of things. The second Harry Potter movie is a fun, fantastic adventure, but, watching it, I had the sense that it could have been even better than it is. I was diverted and entertained, but never truly absorbed.

The problem, as it was with the previous movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, is a slavish faithfulness to the book. Nearly every minor plot element and scene has been retained (although the few absences, such as the "Deathday Party," will no doubt anger some fans), leading to a lot of largely irrelevant tangents and a running length that exceeds the first movie's two and one-half hours. Sequences (chiefly of the character-building variety) that work well on the written page do not always fare as strongly in a motion picture, and that is the case here. One must remember that novels and cinema are different media. Some of the best movie adaptations do not adhere rigorously to the author's text. The first hour of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets occasionally feels sluggish and prone to aimless wandering. After that, once the main story kicks into high gear, the film comes across as better focused and faster paced – at least until the last quarter-hour and the seemingly endless denouement.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets opens up with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) joining his friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), and his nemesis, Draco (Tom Felton), as they prepare to begin their sophomore year at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Many of the old professors and administrators are back, including headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris in his final role), the strict Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and the dark, unwelcoming Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). There's also a newcomer – the charismatic, self-absorbed Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), who is more concerned with answering fan mail than teaching how to defend against the dark arts. But all is not well at Hogwarts. A dark plot is brewing, with someone planning to break into the legendary "Chamber of Secrets" and unleash a monster that can petrify or kill with a look. It's up to Harry and his two friends to uncover the individual behind the plot and foil him or her before Hogwarts is closed.

All of the true inspiration underlying Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets lies in J.K. Rowling's writing. The Harry Potter books don't break new barriers, but they mix long-accepted fantasy formulas into a mélange that is fresh, easygoing, and infectious. Some of that comes across in the movies, but there are times when director Chris Columbus' pedestrian filmmaking lacks the spark that would truly ignite a movie. Columbus doesn't take a single chance. As a result, there are times when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets seems more like a pre-packaged product than a living, breathing motion picture. It satisfies, but does not overwhelm.

The film's high octane second half is vastly better than the fitfully entertaining opening 75 minutes. All of the memorable scenes occur late in the movie, including an amazingly realized sequence featuring a bunch of large, unfriendly spiders and an equally eye-popping battle with a giant snake. These scenes, with their flawless CGI special effects, dwarf even the most impressive sequence from the first movie. The film's other big effect is the computer-generated Dobby the House Elf, who simultaneously manages to be little more convincing and a little less annoying than Jar-Jar Binks.

The trio of young actors – Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint – is back. Each of the young stars gives a more confident and polished performance than in his or her previous outing. One hopes the filmmakers will be able to stay with these performers for at least another one or two outings. (Age may eventually become a factor, since future movies are not projected to arrive annually.) The best of the newcomers is, expectedly, Kenneth Branagh, who sinks his teeth into playing the preening, supercilious Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh has been keeping a low profile in the past few years – it's nice to see him explode back into the limelight with something this enjoyable. The other notable addition is Jason Issacs, who plays Draco's father, Lucius. Isaacs radiates pure evil, and there's little doubt that he will become a formidable adversary for Harry in future episodes.

As a companion piece to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets makes for effective viewing. The second film may be a little darker than the first, but the two pictures mesh perfectly – not surprising, considering that many of the same people were responsible for both. Creatively, the movie has its flaws, but those will be ignored in the impending, inescapable box office tidal wave. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here, with director Columbus leaving and the next book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, being too long for the kind of direct regurgitation that marked the first two outings. One can only hope the result will be as good as, if not better than, its predecessors.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (United States/United Kingdom, 2002)

Run Time: 2:41
U.S. Release Date: 2002-11-15
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1