Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Posted by Joel Copling on December 3, 2015

In certain respects, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" exacerbates the central issue had by its predecessor: It remains stringently faithful to author J.K. Rowling's text to an occasionally suffocating degree. Whereas the novel revolved around a whodunit as only Rowling could relate (complete with dead-ends, sudden "Aha!" moments, and a series of final twists that worked because of the lack of foreshadowing), returning screenwriter Steve Kloves merely emulates that narrative thrust. The results happily aren't all that less edifying than before, mainly because the imagination on display in director Chris Columbus' vision is still so compelling.

It's not been an easy summer for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who is back with his curmudgeonly relatives--Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), and Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling)--after a year away at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he is famous and under the tutelage of magical teachers. But his impending trip back to the school might be in trouble: A raggedy house-elf comes to warn him that "terrible events" are to happen there this year. The house-elf's intrusion alerts the Dursleys to the dangers of having a magical nephew in a non-magical world, prompting Harry's best friend and sidekick Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and two of his brothers to rescue Harry from the Dursleys' latest punishment.

Reunited with Ron and their other friend, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Harry returns to Hogwarts, where at first everything is as copacetic as before. He still has a rivalry with Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), that slick-blond-haired menace who is now his rival in the airborne Quidditch sport played on broomsticks in the school's massive stadium. He still hates potions master Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), is still equally intimidated and awed by the regal headmaster Albus Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris), and still learns a variety of subjects, such as Defense Against the Dark Arts, taught this year by the foppish and self-obsessed Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh).

He is also still entrenched in the many mysteries of the school, which means things are indeed not back to normal this year. Three students, a ghost, and a cat are attacked in such a way that they are left frozen in time--petrified by some unknown, new threat to the school. Harry, Ron, and Hermione investigate the strange occurrences, egged on by a rumor that Harry himself might be behind the attacks (One part of their investigation leads them into the Slytherin common room, disguised as members of the House to interrogate Malfoy, whom they believe to be the culprit). The secret turns out to be a bit more ancient than that, and a mysterious diary left in a toilet might be their most telling clue.

Columbus is once again pre-occupied with set-pieces, topped once again by the thrilling finale, which sees Harry face off against a gigantic serpent. A fight between the sentient car belonging to the Weasley family and a whomping willow on the school grounds is physical comedy at its most highly amusing, and a run-in with giant spiders deep within the Forbidden Forest is enough to give a viewer arachnophobia. The reliance on these set-pieces renders the film exhausting, and it interferes with the movie's intended heart (Another bit with the car, for instance, is entirely concocted by the movie, and no wonder Rowling didn't stoop to its level almost directly before the showdown with the willow).

Nevertheless, we are once again confronted with a mystery that more or less works, although Stuart Craig's production design also once again overshadows much intrigue it might hold. The tension builds well enough, with the titular chamber acting as a sort of MacGuffin until the payoff proves that it's the real deal. The actors are impressive across the board, even if Watson is given less to do (an occupational hazard, given a certain development with her character). Branagh is particularly terrific as the personification of conceited entitlement, and Jason Isaacs makes a perfect pairing with Felton as Draco's father Lucius. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is, indeed, more of the same, which is a good thing--with reservations.

Film Information

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy).

Directed by Chris Columbus and written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.

Rated PG (scary moments, creature violence, mild language).

161 minutes.

Released on November 15, 2002.