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Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (2002)
Director: Chris Columbus

review by Amy Harlib

The film adaptation of the second book (of a projected seven), in J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular and successful fantasy series will no doubt be a hit equal to if not surpassing its predecessor - in no small measure due to the author's close involvement supervising every stage of the cinematic process. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, with nearly the same personnel in front of and behind the camera that worked on the first film, offers a magical movie treat more assured, more engaging, darker and yet equally dazzling. This second outing assumes viewer familiarity with the subject matter and plunges right into the story and character interactions without recap or explanations, a decision making for better narrative pacing that will no doubt bewilder and mystify non-magically inclined muggle-minds. The vast majority of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets' intended audience of cognoscenti will be captivated from the get go, though a few fanatics may no doubt complain about a few excised scenes from the book that just couldn't fit into a movie of viewer-friendly length.

In the opening, 12 year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), enduring the endless mistreatment inflicted on him by his adopted Dursley family of mundane muggles, yearns to return for his second year at Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. During his preparations, Harry gets a surprise visit from Dobby the House Elf (voice of Toby Jones), a delightfully doleful, diminutive, masochistic and believable-looking CGI creature who comes with ill-defined warnings he is too nervous to specify, that our protagonist must beware a dire fate awaiting him if he returns to school. Determined to go anyway, Harry gets liberated from the Dursley's by his closest classmate friends: the whip-smart Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and the good-natured but klutzy Ron Weasely (Rupert Grint), these companions later to be joined by Ron's kid sister and new student Ginny (Bonnie Wright). The eager would-be attendees get whisked to Hogwarts in Ron's parents' flying jalopy when they find that the gate to the school's private train mysteriously closed to them.

Harry's joyful return and reunions quickly go sour when Dobby's predictions prove accurate with students turning up victims of petrifying spells cast by an unknown monstrous entity and with warnings written in blood scrawled graffiti-style on the walls. The text informs all and sundry that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened and the 'heir' has returned. It seems that hundreds of years ago, one of Hogwarts founders from the Slytherin Clan had built a rumoured secret vault housing a monster somewhere in the bowels of the sprawling institution. This hidden menace embodied then and apparently now the Nazi-like loathing of its masters, it being trained to kill 'mudbloods', wizard youngsters with muggles mingled in their ancestral heritages. Since only the 'Heir of Slytherin' can pull an 'open sesame' job on the chamber, who that person can be becomes the urgent question along with the thoughtful subtextual examination of unreasoning prejudice and race hatred ironically portrayed against the presence of numerous girls and boys of colour sprinkled among the pupils at Hogwarts - magical talent having nothing to do with skin tones.

While more students succumb to the petrifaction process, suspicion builds that Harry Potter may be the 'heir' in question since he surprisingly proves to possess the hitherto thought exclusively Slytherin ability to speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes. The situation becomes critical when the authorities at Hogwarts decree that failure to stop the monster means that the school will be forced to close - an unprecedented measure never before undertaken in its long history. Excitement mounts while Hermione, Ron and Harry race to solve the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets and save their beloved school, not to mention Harry also having to cope with an avatar of his archenemy Voldemort who is connected to all this.

Along the way to the rousing conclusion, the film offers a full measure of marvels that include (besides the already-mentioned Dobby): the new herbalist, Professor Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), refreshingly matter-of-fact while instructing her class in handling the amazing screaming, very-animate Mandrake plants; the additional newly arrived instructor in Defence Against the Dark Arts, Gilderoy Lockhart with Kenneth Branagh perfectly cast as this egotistical poseur, comically trying to disguise his ineptitude; the magnificently morose Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), a ghost who haunts the girls' bathroom; the fast and furious, vastly improved aerial football-like Quidditch game sequence of flying on broomsticks and chasing after 'snitches' and 'blodgers' and fellow players; the lovely Fawkes the Phoenix, another CGI creation embodying a beautiful, symbol-laden legend; more antics from mail-delivering owls; the flying car, especially when it encounters the Whomping Willow; the cave filled with giant spiders and the sentient granddaddy of them all in a sequence that could give Eight Legged Freaks and Arachnophobia a run for their money; and the climactic, scary showdown with the huge, convincing CGI basilisk. A minor flaw, a lapse in logic in this plethora of enchantment occurs when the rattletrap auto shows up at just the right moment to help Harry and Ron get away from the giant spiders - how did the car get there by itself and who sent it? Although the picture's script provides no answer, this glitch does not spoil the overall fun.

The greatest portion of the joy of this movie however, lies in its principal young characters, clearly maturing with the two male leads' deeper voices clearly evident and for all three - growing physical stature, confidence and ease. Beloved supporting players return in all too brief performances deserving of more screen time, most notably: veteran actor Richard Harris as headmaster Albus Dumbledore, poignantly frail in what turns out to be the last role of his career; Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonegall; Alan Rickman's pleasingly more positive while paradoxically still sinister Professor of Potions Severus Snape; Robbie Coltrane as groundskeeper and all-around teddy bear-like nice guy Rubeus Hagrid; and Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy, a scion of Slytherin and Harry's bullying rival who inherits his Aryan-type looks, attitude and bigotry from his very wealthy, newly-appearing father Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs). This senior Malfoy is the most deliciously arrogant, elegantly evil, sneeringly snotty, hiss-able villain you could ask for and his son will have to work hard to match him!

This production delivers the expected deluge of dazzle in two hours and 41 swiftly flowing minutes, with its detailed, richly textured sets and backgrounds (especially Hogwarts' interiors with its moving, TV-like paintings and the Weasley's cosy cottage full of ensorcelled objects). More cinematic charms include: excellent costuming; fine special effects; expert cinematography; and the lush John Williams score - all enhanced by the engaging cast and director Chris Columbus' improved pacing plus the script's thoughtful without preaching subtexts involving pervasive prejudice from which wizards are not immune and involving the process of growing up, facing fears and gaining confidence.

Of course a large part of what makes this story's invented parallel world believable is the matter-of-fact way in which the inhabitants accept the constant miraculous manifestations around them as the parts of everyday life that they are. This mingling in the milieu, of the uncanny, along with the plot's blend of personal drama, boarding school hi-jinks and overt magical mayhem makes Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (and the rest of the series) such hugely satisfying flights of fancy. Experiencing this film (and the books) is to capture or re-capture according to one's age, the freewheeling childhood imagination in a world full of potential wonders and dangers - a joy that only the most oblivious muggles will fail to understand and appreciate while Harry casts his spells.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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more reviews of
Harry Potter films -
Sorcerer's Stone
Prisoner Of Azkaban

see also, a review of
Harry Potter And The
Chamber Of Secrets

on Region 2 DVD

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