Directed by: Chris Columbus
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Kenneth Branagh
Yes, it's actually better than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but, for me, it still -- like its predecessor -- misses genuine greatness. Director Chris Columbus comes much nearer this round, but never quite gets there. Still, where his film does get is pretty damned good.
Better plotted than the first Potter, packed with more interesting events and, blessedly, working its way to a genuinely satisfying climax that -- also blessedly -- isn't followed by nearly a full reel of anticlimactic tag scene, Chamber of Secrets is considerably darker than the first film; and that's as it should be. Harry and his friends are a year older and so are the viewers, so they -- and we -- are up for something a little edgier. It's a very natural progression, though goodness knows where this will end up if the series actually stretches for the promised entries (will the final Harry Potter opus end up being a truly horrific splatterfest of horror filmmaking, with an NC-17 rating?).
In any case, this edginess helps to make Chamber of Secrets a richer experience for adult viewers. Whether the darker tone and the inclusion of occasional horror-movie shock effects will alienate the parents of younger viewers (I have no doubt it won't alienate the younger viewers themselves!) is another question -- and happily one of commerce, not aesthetics.
Chamber of Secrets more expertly moves forward this time in part because most of the characters and locales are already established, so the story itself can now take precedence. The first film -- while being all the while clever and entertaining -- devoted too much time to marveling at the cinematic wizardry that produced its magical wizardry. Here we are free from being asked to ooh! and ahh! over the depiction of things like the suspended candles in the school's dining hall. Such elements are still there, but they're now just touches that we're to accept; we're finally allowed to simply inhabit the world created for us.
The new film also affords us a few new characters, most notably Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Casting Branagh in this role was a stroke of something very like genius. While Branagh is himself both an accomplished actor and filmmaker (for my money, Branagh's Dead Again -- and not The Silence of the Lambs -- is the thriller of 1991), it's always painfully obvious that Branagh is more than a little fond of himself. The boastful, narcissistic Lockhart -- author of a book called Magical Me, but whose magical abilities are pretty much limited to talking a lot of rubbish and botching spells -- is the role Branagh was born to play. (We won't concern ourselves with whether Branagh himself gets the joke.) He's by far the most deliriously funny thing in the entire movie.
The rest of the cast is as good or better than the first time around. Daniel Radcliffe continues to impress as one of the most appealing of all child actors and is growing with the role. Emma Watson is still the perfect companion for him, and it's unfortunate that the dictates of the plot require her to be (quite literally) out of the action for a long stretch of the film.
For what is supposedly a children's movie, Chamber of Secrets is surprisingly sophisticated in its inspirations and origins. The magical books depicted in the film certainly recall the enchanted volumes of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, for example. Similarly, the beautifully designed door to the Chamber of Secrets is for all the world like something out of Edgar Wallace. (There's also a great rude joke about mandrake root that will zip right over children's heads, while causing at least a few adults a knowing smile.) There's a terrific set-piece involving spiders of various sizes that might well terrify younger children, but which helps propel the film through its middle section. The script, too, generally builds on things (Harry's ability to talk with snakes, etc.) that were established in the first entry. (Happily, the scenes with Harry's family are considerably shorter than the first round, but they're still the least satisfactory thing in the movie.)
So what keeps Chamber from quite ringing the gong? Probably nothing if you're a diehard fan of the books; but if you're not, you might find the 161-minute running time just a little much. Although it's better done this time, I confess I could have done without another Quidditch match -- and it still smacks far too much of process work to be really convincing. And then there's the computer-generated house elf, Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones). Yes, I know this self-flagellating mini-Uriah Heep is central to the books, but, for me, a little Dobby'll do ya' (and if you get that joke, you're older than the target audience for this movie) -- and there's way more than a little of him. Still, as with the first movie, there's some real magic here -- only more of it than last time, along with a few genuine thrills.
For a slightly different take -- or at least one more in keeping with the target audience of the film -- I asked my young friend Johnny Benton (you may recall Johnny as the one who wrote a letter taking exception to my review of The Country Bears) to watch Chamber and offer his opinion on it. His review follows.