Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
review by KJ Doughton, 22 November 2002

Hollywood Product

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has thrown a dark, velvety vampire’s cape over the draggy, expository blandness of its predecessor. 

Remember how Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom pushed the boundaries of a PG rating, with its sinister child slavery ring and flaming hearts being pulled from chests?  Or how The Empire Strikes Back snatched away Episode IV’s cozy ending and replaced it with the unsettling image of Han Solo being sealed into carbon freeze?  The second "Harry Potter" installment shares the more malevolent spirit of such sequels, trading the whimsical light of the first film for streaks of sinister malice. 

The pitter-patter of creeping spiders’ feet and the crimson graffiti staining Hogwarts’ hallowed walls juice up this sophomore outing, and inject Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a more dynamic spirit than last year’s Sorcerer’s Stone.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets meets its hero (a deeper-voiced, almost-pubescent Daniel Radcliffe trading in his scarecrow cuteness for a slightly more swashbuckling attitude) as he once again endures a miserable, repressed existence under the roof of his stifling aunt and uncle’s sterile abode.

Soon, however, he’s cast into the academic melting pot of Hogwarts to continue his study of wizardly ways. The same motley crew of magic-makers is there to whip Harry and his colleagues into top-notch wand-wielders, including headmaster Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris, looking pallid and winded), Professor McGonagal (Maggie Smith), and Snape (Alan Rickman, again resembling an usher for the Satanic Church of San Francisco). Hairy, lovable Hagrid the Giant (a portly Robbie Coltrane) is also around to complete this coven of old reliables.

Still with me? The introductions have only just begun.

We’ve not yet touched on Hogwart’s bastion of young wizards, including Harry’s carrot-topped buddy Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), brainy gal pal Hermione (Emma Watson), and tow-headed mischief-maker Draco (Tom Felton), all previously introduced in the first film.

But wait – what about the new necromancers in town? Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) joins the Hogwarts staff as the school’s pompous Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. Meanwhile, the charismatic Jason Isaacs (whose villainous redcoat breathed malicious life into The Patriot) plays leering, sneering Lucius Malfoy, father of Draco.

To Chamber of Secrets’ credit, these key players are thrown onto the carpet with brisk, minimal strokes so that Harry & Co. can get on with the business of resolving a series of nasty on-campus shenanigans.  Why are cats being strung up in the corridors of Hogwarts, while messages scribbled in blood paint the walls?  Like a schizophrenic haunted by auditory taunts, Harry is soon fighting off macabre voices instructing him to commit evil acts, while other students become frozen, like stiff pillars of salt.

Who is behind such wickedness, and how can Harry end this chain of evil events?  Do such sinister forces come from the long-sealed Chamber of Secrets, and if so, who dared to open its forbidden door?  Was it Draco Malfoy and his intimidating father, both of whom share the fascist belief that mud-bloods (children with human parents) should not attend Hogwarts?  Their beliefs, Harry comes to understand, were shared by Salazar Slytherin, one of Hogwarts’ first house teachers. Is there a connection?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets culminates in a series of impressive, well-staged set pieces.  Just like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom threw viewers onto the rails of an underground coal car and had them clutching theater armrests with iron grips, this second Potter picture has Harry and Ron braving a forestful of spiders as cringe-worthy as the mechanical arachnids from Minority Report.  Meanwhile, in a genealogical twist borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back, Harry is forced to confront his heritage by entering the Chamber, sword in hand, like Luke Skywalker wielding a light saber.

As much of an improvement as Chamber of Secrets is over the first Potter plodder, it’s still dragged down several notches from the classic playing field of Indiana Jones and Star Wars by overlength and paint-by-numbers pacing. Reined in by its unswaying allegiance to J.K. Rowling’s source material and the need to stuff in each and every detail from her 1999 book, there’s something strangely impersonal about the film. One never forgets that they’re watching a slick, glossy Hollywood "product." 

Even so, director Chris Columbus flicks a few fresh surprises into the tried ‘n true mix.  As a vain author of the autobiography "Magical Me," Kenneth Branaugh joins the distinguished list of British thespians populating Harry Potter’s U.K.-spirited world.  Meanwhile, Radcliffe looks more confident and seasoned wearing Harry’s demanding shoes. There’s a restless glint in his eyes that makes Harry appear hungrier and less indifferent than he did in the first film.

However, the entire Potter cast is completely upstaged by Isaacs, an underrated character actor often miscast in military roles (Black Hawk Down), but just as often mesmerizing when allowed the chance to shine (The Patriot).  Possessing an air of snobby, self-righteous arrogance, Isaacs’ senior Malfoy appears capable of doing nearly anything to justify and satiate his own needs and beliefs, however twisted and self-serving. 

Harry Potter is back with a vengeance, but for how long?  Pretty soon, Radcliffe’s elementary school charm will fall victim to the unsparing rites of puberty.  Can audiences accept an older, wiser adolescent Harry?  Rowling should gamble that they will, and rough out her next series saga – Harry Potter and the Clearasil Curse.

Directed by:
Christopher Columbus

Daniel Radcliffe
Rupert Grint
Emma Watson
Kenneth Branagh
John Cleese
Robbie Coltrane
Warwick Davis
Richard Griffiths
Richard Harris
Jason Isaacs
Alan Rickman
Fiona Shaw
Maggie Smith
Julie Walters
Shirley Henderson
Tom Felton

Written by:
Steve Kolves
J.K. Rowling

PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may not
be appropriate for







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