Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Run Time: 2 hours 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a very tough movie to sort out. Between being slightly better than the source novel and slightly worse than The Sorcerer’s Stone, despite being a tad better in the exact places where that film was weak, we’ve got a bit of a mess on our hands, reviewing-wise. But never fear! I’m no stranger to messes. I did successfully (and handsomely) review Grizzly II: The Concert, after all.
There comes a point in the course of a horror blog career that simple challenges like murky inferiorities cease to scare you, as long as everything in the frame is visible 99% of the time. But I digress.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in case you have just come back from the dead and missed the period between 1997 and 2011, tells the story of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), a polite twelve-year-old boy with the charming quirk of being a wizard with magical powers. Even though a mysterious house elf named Dobby (Toby Jones) arrives with a warning not to go back to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he doesn’t listen because Hogwarts is the only place he feels like he belongs.
However, Dobby’s warning comes true when vicious attacks leave various students Petrified in the name of the Heir of Salazar Slytherin (a Hogwarts founder and owner of the most obviously wicked name ever written). Rumors abound that the mythical Chamber of Secrets has been opened by Harry, setting Slytherin’s monster loose on the grounds. Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), however, suspect the culprit to be their rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).
This relatively simple plot zips by with all the vigor of a speeding turtle, making you feel every last minute of its hideously distended 2.7 hours.
You could die while watching this movie, reincarnate, grow up, and learn to speak English again, all in time for the finale.
For once, let’s begin with the good, shall we? I mean, if you ignore that previous statement. Which you may well have done, because we all know you only skim these things.
Chamber of Secrets improves upon its predecessor in this all-important way: It doesn’t let the book get the better of its narrative. This film takes much more license with the source material, streamlining, embellishing, and sometimes even improving it. Several key action sequences are expanded and rendered quite a bit more exciting, whether it be the off-road course of Harry’s fateful Quidditch match, an extended adventure through the titular Chamber, Harry and Ron’s cross-country trip in a flying Ford Anglia, or even Dobby smashing a pudding at the Dursleys’ house. I know, right?
It is hampered somewhat by the unenviable task of interpreting the single weakest ending of the series and its small army of deus ex machina, but compare to Stone, it is a stunning achievement in self-contained storytelling.
The other area where Chamber of Secrets is undeniably superior is its aesthetic, which finds in Chris Columbus a surer hand than he managed to provide before. Several shots even manage to evoke a theme, if you can beieeve that. The opening shot is a stunning evocation of the dull sameness of the Muggle world, and one moment finds Kenneth Branagh’s egotistical Professor Lockhart posing with a painting of himself posing with a painting of himself in a hilarious nesting doll of self-congratulation.
The production design is likewise deftly improved, with additions to the castle rendering it more tactile and earthy. It’s far more believable that humans might inhabit this location, no matter how magical they may be. And the new locations (especially the Weasley family home – The Burrow) are depicted with utmost care and grace.
Loose observation: Nobody at Hogwarts seems to care if students’ lives are endangered, as long as it’s in the scheduled curriculum.
Ah, but here’s where we slip inevitably into mediocrity. The child performances all slip down a peg save for Emma Watson – who alone of the young cast is a marked improvement – and Bonnie Wright (as Ginny Weasley), who imbues her role with a kind of stony determination that would come to define the character. But as for the boys, they're all over the place.
As their voices drop, their performances slip. Maybe they just noticed girls and found themselves far too distracted for anything as subtle as a major motion picture. At any rate, Radcliffe finds himself very taken with Stooge-like overreactions and Felton spits out his dialogue like sunflower seeds, spraying the whole place with fleshy shrapnel. Rupert Grint settles into a strong position when he is called upon to be the comic relief, but otherwise happily whiles away the hours by placing untoward emphasis on random, inappropriate vowels.
By far the best child performance of the entire film is Shirley Henderson who, as a matter of fact, isn’t a child at all, but a fully grown woman who must have access to a lifetime supply of Maybelline. Her performance as Moaning Myrtle is gloopily self-indulgent and fun, swinging over the top and right back around again. The rest of the adults once again fill out an astonishingly solid supporting cast, with new additions Kenneth Branagh (all inflated bravado and squirrely Britishisms) and Jason Isaacs (a picture of well-heeled malice as Lucius Malfoy) proving a perfect match for Harry Potter’s cheerfully epic universe.
Also, he's uncomfortably handsome.
And now, alas, for the truly, admirably bad. The film, insofar as it exists as its own distinct narrative entity, does drop a few conspicuous balls along the way. It completely neglects to set up several important plot points (most notably Lockhart’s self-aggrandizing book collection) and, in one peculiar instance, has two entire characters appear out of the blue as if they’d been there the whole time.
Likewsie, the special effects, while mostly satisfactory, have several uncomfortable rough patches. For every improved Quidditch green screen or fairly seamless flying car moment, there are the hideous Lego monstrosities masquerading as pixies or a set of hideously amateurish paintings that replace the magical moving ones when they think we’re not looking. And while nothing approaches the film-tearing inadequacy of the cabin in the sea scene from Stone, there is one prominently visible moment where the actors are dawdling at the edge of the frame, clearly waiting for their cue.
Toss in a horrific tone that’s waiting desperately in the wings but never called into action and a couple scenes so stiff they have toe tags, and you can’t help but feels the glamor and appeal begin to deflate dejectedly. It’s not a terrible film. In many instances, it is a totally fine, effective one. But it’s a film that goes on for song long that the negatives stretch on into infinity outweighing nearly all the positives at one point or another.
It’s always watchable, but for long stretches it is deathly dull, a descriptor that belongs nowhere near the hallowed grounds of Hogwarts. For better or for worse, I’m ready to move on to Cuarón.
TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is both a slight improvement and a slight decline from its predecessor.
Word Count: 1222
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Columbus, 2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Columbus, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón, 2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Yates, 2010)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Yates, 2011)