In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second installment of J.K. Rowling's seven-part epic about a boy wizard, the titular hero returns to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry for his second year of spellcasting, only to discover new dangers. According to local legend, a secret room known as the Chamber of Secrets, the home of a deadly monster, supposedly exists somewhere on campus grounds. When students mysteriously turn into stone, clues indicate that the chamber does indeed exist, and has has been opened. Naturally, it falls to Harry and his faithful friends Ron and Hermione to uncover the chamber before anyone else is harmed.
The second movie of the Harry Potter series is as entertaining and imaginative as its predecessor. In fact, The Chamber of Secrets offers many improvements over The Sorcerer's Stone: markedly better special effects, a heightened sense of suspense, and more action, including an intense scene in which Harry and Ron escape from a massive swarm of giant spiders. Minor points of the first movie, such as Harry's ability to talk to snakes and his encounter with the Sorting Hat, are revisited and expanded into major elements of this second film. The families and heritage of Ron, Hermione, and Harry's rival Draco Malfoy are all examined and become critical themes. Even the school itself has some of its history revealed, adding to the depth and detail of this fantastic world (the origin of the names of the various houses at Hogwarts was a nice touch).
But Chamber isn't entirely a step forward, often repeating what has already been done. Harry escapes from his obnoxious adoptive family, shops for school supplies, chases down the train that takes students to Hogwarts, and engages in yet another game of Quidditch--all things that were adequately covered in the first film. Such unnecessary repetition is extremely tiresome, especially since the movie's runtime is bloated at over two and a half hours. Lengthy speeches don't help: the main villain explains his schemes in a long winded dissertation as if he were in a James Bond film, and a wordy epilogue comes even after the story's conflict has been resolved. All these details may be a treat to hardcore fans of the Potter books, but they can be unforgiving to casual audiences looking for a simple family film or cinematic eye candy.
Chamber's computer-generated creatures are almost always lame. The troublesome pixies and screeching mandrake roots look utterly ridiculous, and the destitute Dobby, a "house elf" who warns Harry of impending doom, is annoying from his very first appearance. To say Dobby is the Jar Jar Binks of the Potter world is to give him too much credit. His masochistic tendencies and cheesy habit of referring to himself in the third person get tiresome quickly.
Harry's lack of spellcasting is noticeably disappointing. Considering the movie's theme, one would expect a lot of arcane pyrotechnics. But as in The Sorcerer's Stone, our wizard in training does surprisingly little in the way of magic. Even in his final battle in the Chamber of Secrets, he acts more like a knight slaying a dragon, brandishing a sword instead of sorcery.
An obvious change in Chamber is how the kids have aged since the first Potter film. Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, seems to have grown beyond the sparse roster of two expressions he demonstrated in The Sorcerer's Stone. Emma Watson, who fills the role of sidekick Hermione Granger, now comes across like a smart and helpful girl instead of a precocious know-it-all. And Rupert Grint, the well-meaning but often bumbling Ron Weasley, gains the role of older brother now that little sister Ginny Weasley has become more of a central character.
The supporting cast is mixed. The general rule of thumb here is that if they were in the first movie, they're good; if they're new, they're not. Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Robbie Coltrane are all fantastic as the Hogwarts staff, while Alan Rickman continues to steal the show in his too-brief scenes as the seemingly shady Professor Snape. Less engaging are the newcomers: Kenneth Branagh as the pompous professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts and Jason Isaacs as the overtly sinister Lucius Malfoy are both too one-dimensional to be interesting. It is particularly disappointing in the case of Isaacs, who made such an excellent villain in The Patriot.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets may have its share of shortcomings, but it also has a fun story and a certain charm that is missing from many other Hollywood marketing machines. Those with the patience to sit through this lengthy movie will be rewarded with a glimpse at a wondrous world--one that can offer entertainment for both children and adults.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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