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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Tom Felton.

Review by Rob Vaux

Now this is more like it. After struggling interminably to bring the first of the obscenely popular Harry Potter novels to the screen, director Chris Columbus finally cracks the code with his second effort. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the latest in what promises to be a long line of Potter films, is thrilling where its predecessor was dull, fun where the initial film was leaden. It reunites the title fledgling wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) with his chums and colleagues at Hogwarts School of Wizardry, this time with all the restraints removed. This is the film his fans have been waiting for.

Of course, it helps that the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, laid so much groundwork for the franchise, taking on the burdensome duties of explaining Harry's past, the nature of Hogwarts, and the various bells and whistles of author J.K. Rowling's fantasy universe. Its timidity resulted in a lot of necessary exposition but little real magic. The Chamber of Secrets takes advantage of that thankless work; secure with the whos and whats of Harry's world, it dives straight into its wonderful story without looking back -- a feat that wouldn't be possible if The Sorcerer's Stone hadn't taken it on the chin. After being detained by his beastly relatives, Harry is sprung by his good friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), transporting him in a flying car back to Hogwarts for the new semester. There, a dark mystery awaits him: students begin turning up paralyzed, along with cryptic messages written in blood and rumors of a monster lurking in the school's bowels. Signs point to the sinister Slytherin house -- home to Harry's hated rival Malfoy (Tom Felton) -- and worse, that Harry himself may have somehow triggered the monster's attacks.

Rowling clearly has a complex story arc planned for the seven books in the series, and The Chamber of Secrets bears the fruit of that complexity. The story here holds subtle nuances, building upon earlier facts to bring depth and meaning to the proceedings. While Columbus can't avoid a fair amount of bloat (the film's two hours and 40 minutes start to drag towards the end), he keeps things moving surprisingly well and infuses the action with a lot of wit and humanity. The Chamber of Secrets feels effortless in its development, guiding us through this world without making us aware of the burgeoning iconic empire behind it all. The special effects conjure all manner of monsters and settings with the expected polish, and though they never truly blow our socks off, they do convey the totality of Rowling's vision. Unlike The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets makes us believe in something more than the marketing. A sense of constant fun permeates the entire proceedings, and while some elements carry dark overtones (including a group of very scary giant spiders), they serve to thrill and excite rather than truly frighten. Credit Columbus for striking the right notes, and for making this a true movie rather than a recycled form of the book.

As with the first film, character plays a large role in the proceedings, and the lead performances quietly improve over their earlier incarnations. Grint's Weasley has much more to do in The Chamber of Secrets, and he handles the extra load with uncanny aplomb. Emma Watson, playing Hogwart's resident Queen of the Know-It-Alls Hermione Granger, is less pivotal in this entry, but still radiates winning charisma. The supporting cast (mostly adults) is uniformly excellent as well, though the glut of talent on display becomes all the more striking when you realize how little most of them have to do. The likes of Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and even the late Richard Harris serve little purpose beyond plot exposition and a few nice one-liners. Rickman's Professor Snape in particular, seems ill at ease, waiting perhaps for a meatier part in a later film. They fill out Hogwarts marvelously, but you wonder sometimes if they can't be put to better use.

The new additions to the cast do much better. Jason Isaacs picks up Rickman's slack as Malfoy's odious father, ensuring that the Evil Englishman Contingent is well-represented. An even better turn comes from Kenneth Branagh, fearlessly self-effacing as the school's new professor, Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart is a celebrity fop, excellent at charming the yokels but dreadful at actual magic. Branagh plays him strictly for laughs, yet his efforts never detract from the rest of the film; he steals the show without overshadowing it, a trick worthy of the greatest magician.

As marvelous as these performances are, however, The Chamber of Secrets ultimately lives and dies with its title character. Here, as much as anywhere, the film is in good hands. Not only does Radcliffe show better acting chops than he did in the first film, but the story allows Harry to escape his "child of destiny" mantle and shine on his own merits. He isn't handed anything because of his special heritage here. The plot doesn't grant him unique benefits, or give him a free ride on reputation as The Sorcerer's Stone did. He triumphs because he's smart and clever and brave, succeeding on his abilities rather than the convenient insertion of fate which proved so irritating in The Sorcerer's Stone. Radcliffe makes him a truly winning character, and Columbus guides his young star with a very assured hand. Harry's newfound sense of heroism carries The Chamber of Secrets on its shoulders, confirming why so many people love this series so much. The second time, it seems, is the charm.

Review published 11.18.2002.

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