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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Reviewed by Eliza DoLots
Posted January 23, 2003

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Sequels are often problematic things. Can they equal the original? Can they top it? The original movie of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was highly anticipated, even a tad feared. The book — the first in what is inarguably the most loved CURRENT juvenile fiction series — seemed an almost impossible translation to film. How could it be done without giving up a great deal of the story and plot? It turned out it could be done quite well indeed. The movie of The Sorcerer’s Stone satisfied and amazed both the young and not-so-young in the audience.

This put Chamber of Secrets in a very interesting position. Much like the crowd awaiting The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Potter fans were comfortable that Chamber was in good hands. These were people who clearly appreciated the work and would do it justice. It’s a different sort of pressure from most sequels. An optimistic audience can often find faults and flaws that a pessimistic or wary audience would ignore.

Director Christopher Columbus and crew held up to the pressure admirably. They have created a movie easily as good, and in many ways better than the first. Many of the improvements are simply the result of the story itself. While the first movie had to introduce us to these characters and settings, the second simply had to tell the story. At heart, Chamber of Secrets is an exciting adventure in which a young boy solves an age old mystery to rescue his friend from a horrible death. Straightforward plots — however elaborate and magical the surroundings — are at the core of most successful movies.

Many of the improvements are a result of the decision to NOT slave to the book while being faithful to it. In particular, the ever so dull “stolen car flying to Hogwart’s” scene is turned into a spectacularly scary and exciting thrill ride. Equally enhanced is the terrifying meeting with the spiders in the Forbidden Forest. While CREEPY in the book, it ended instantly when the car arrived. Here, the car’s arrival is the beginning of a frightening chase that had me curling up in my seat. The scene in which Harry and Ron (having taken the forms of Draco’s thuggish buddies, Crabbe and Goyle) discover that they are changing back into themselves is, in the book, boring to the point of not being worth remembering. In the movie it is riotously funny, as they each notice the OTHER is changing and, with just one word each convey what is happening.

As with Sorcerer’s Stone, the adult cast dives into their roles with apparent joy. This movie’s “defense against the dark arts” professor, Kenneth Branagh has the most clearly fun and enjoyable role as the charming, lovely and utterly incompetent Gilderoy Lockhart. Jason Isaacs, as Lucius Malfoy — father of Harry’s arch nemesis Draco Malfoy — steals all his scenes with his barely subdued evil.

The younger actors are more of a mixed bag. Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) is weak. Noticeable on the first viewing, he was almost painful to watch the second time. Required to spend many of his scenes being terrified, he mostly squeaks and grimaces through his scenes. He rallies considerably when the threat to his sister Ginny (played acceptably if dully by Bonnie Wright) is discovered. Finally he becomes the solid, heroic Ron who willingly let himself be beaten up in the Sorcerer’s Stone chess match.

Emma Watson is perhaps a bit chirpish as Hermoine Granger, however, since she spends part of the film as a mutant cat and a considerably longer part petrified, it’s not really a problem.

Daniel Radcliffe in the central role of Harry Potter fulfills the promise of his casting for the first movie. Timid and stiff in Sorcerer’s Stone, he is confident, comfortable and positively heroic in Chamber of Secrets. Part of it is no doubt the writer’s becoming familiar with the actor, being able to write lines he will speak naturally. However, much of it is simply the actor himself taking control of his scenes. Where he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the luminaries who play the professors at Hogwarts, now he holds his own, taking command and staying the central focus of scenes with Maggie Smith and Richard Harris.

My favorite thing about Harry, which is true in the book, but so much more noticeable in the movie, is his politeness. I love how he tries to wrap up the discussion with the giant spider Aragog with a, “Well, thank you very much then…we’ll just be going.” Again, when Moaning Myrtle (who doesn’t sound at all moaning to me…more WHINING) tells Harry that if he dies, he can share her toilet, he very nicely says “Thank you, Myrtle.” While a minor point, the charming way Radcliff handles these lines adds immeasurably to his appeal.

The character of Harry is more heroic than in the book, from the outset he is more in control. This is never more apparent than when Lucius Malfoy says “let us hope the famous Harry Potter will always be around to save the day” …Harry’s response (“I will be”) could have been made menacing or angry, but it is still, calm, confident.

Chamber of Secrets features the first fully computer generated character for the series: Dobby the house elf. It is likely, given the story, that computer generated characters will be a major feature of the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban. Knowing that, I had been concerned about how Dobby would work out. I needn’t have been. Falling somewhere between the glorious Gollum in The Two Towers and the always obviously fake Jar Jar Binks of Phantom Menace, Dobby is just fine. Here too, the character in the movie is more heroic than the book. His fierce protectiveness of Harry Potter is obvious from his first scene and it is DOBBY that gets the final blow in the final conflict with Lucius Malfoy.

One of the most commented on weaknesses of Sorcerer’s Stone was the special effects used to create the Quidditch matches. Flying about on brooms tossing balls about was undeniably a challenge, but, given its importance to the series as a whole, the weak, wobbly, clearly fake at times scenes in Sorcerer’s Stone were a major disappointment. The filmmakers have taken that criticism to heart and done a remarkable job with Chamber of Secrets. Far more convincing, the Quidditch match, like so many things in the movie, is more exciting than in the book. Taking us through the understructure of the stadium, featuring many close calls and spectacular crashes, this movie alleviates the fear that both the third movie, and the hoped for but not committed to, fourth movie would suffer because Quidditch is so much more central to both those books.

Knowing that a third movie is in production, it’s natural to project what has been done in this movie and anticipate how the next movie will be. The Prisoner of Azkaban is far and away the darkest book of the series so far. It is also the only book so far to NOT have the easily identifiable/instantly hate-able VILLIAN Voldemort. Prisoner deals with issues of past wrongs that can never be righted, unfair treatment of people who are truly good, bad — very bad — things happening to people who have done nothing wrong and children who suffer because of the bad things that happened long ago. Facing your personal demons and fighting your personal fears are the central themes of Prisoner of Azkaban. How that will play, after this roller coaster of an adventure is difficult to say. While Radcliffe’s performance in Chamber of Secrets is stellar, in Prisoner of Azkaban he will be stretched beyond anything he has been asked to do in the first two films. Fortunately, Ron Weasley is rarely terrified in Prisoner of Azkaban, so Grint’s weakness should not cause much problem (and maybe, in the meantime, someone can help him with OTHER ways to convey “scared”).

Far more worrisome is the decision to KEEP Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledorr. While Harris’ death was a blow and the idea of replacing him made parent’s everywhere quiver (“okay…how will the kid take THAT/?”) the decision to digitally superimpose already filmed shots (including from the first two movies) of Harris’ face over the face of his body double is scary. If Dumbledorr doesn’t look good — if he’s at all fake looking — it would be a major weakness.

Finally, and perhaps most disquieting: Christopher Columbus is not directing Prisoner of Azkaban. However, change can be good and I will keep my hope high.

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Since this review is so late in being written, it’s appropriate to end it with a comment about how much I am looking forward to the DVD. Chamber of Secrets is a fun, engaging, film that isn’t afraid to take risks and play with our knowledge of the story. It will make a wonderful Christmas gift next December, and I BETTER find one under MY tree!


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Chris Columbus

Steve Kloves

November 15, 2002 (US)

Daniel Radcliffe
Emma Watson
Rupert Grint
Richard Harris
Robbie Coltrane
Maggie Smith
Alan Rickman
John Cleese

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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