[box cover]

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Warner Home Video

Starring 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, and Julie Walters

Written by Steve Kloves
From the book by J.K. Rowling

Directed by Chris Columbus


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Review by Clarence Beaks                    


Unburdened by the crushing weight of seemingly endless, but inarguably necessary exposition that, at times, made Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) such a chore to sit through, there was legitimate reason to hope that the sophomore session of the young wizard's schooling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), despite its reputation as the weakest of the books so far, would be a more streamlined piece of popular entertainment. One could at leas expect that screenwriter Steve Kloves would pare down the novel's elaborate narrative in an effort to give the proceedings the sense of being an honest-to-Lumiere film, rather than an airless, big budget, imagination-stifling picture book (his script for Wonder Boys was the winning feat of adaptation that won him the lucrative Potter gig).

To this admirable end, the good news is that much more has been elided from the source material this time out. But there's bad news, too: One hundred and sixty-one breathlessly plotted minutes of it that, once again, often feels like rote recitation of Rowling's book, a nagging flaw compounded by Chris Columbus's annoying mimicry of the worst manipulatively mawkish tendencies of the mid-1980s Amblin productions on which the one-time-wunderkind protégé of Steven Spielberg cut his teeth.

This is why there's a much-publicized reason for Potter fans to celebrate. Starting with "Year Three," there will be a new headmaster behind the camera at Hogwarts in the visually inventive guise of Alfonso Cuaron, who, it should be noted, likely got the job on the strength of his underappreciated 1995 effort, A Little Princess, rather than last year's rambunctiously ribald Y Tu Mamá También. But as the franchise ventures onward into more darkly mature territory, it could very well be considered in retrospect something of a creative masterstroke in hiring Columbus to guide the series through the growing pains of its first two entries. As fans of the novels are well aware, the first two installments represent a development period for Rowling, who, in the process of spinning her richly imagined yarns, was finding her voice as a writer — which may be why these movies, while hinting a bit at the deliciously darker happenings yet to come, seem relatively innocuous. In the first two books, Rowling was clearly more focused on the mechanics of storytelling than in leaving her artistic imprimatur, meaning that a director of any visionary caliber would largely be wasted on these initial forays. What was needed was a studio hack in the most complimentary sense of the word, and who better to fill the bill than the wholesome family man Columbus?

To say he responded to the challenge enthusiastically would be to flatter Columbus with an adjective unworthy of his measured, workmanlike approach. But, all stylistic misgivings to the contrary, he certainly never fumbled the quaffle.

*          *          *

As in the last film, Chamber of Secrets opens at the Dursley's house at 4 Privet Drive, where Harry has made the upwardly mobile move from the cupboard under the stairs to his gluttonous cousin Dudley's "second bedroom." But unlike the previous film, this time Columbus and Kloves, exhibiting absolute obeisance to Rowling's holy writ, plunge directly into the busy narrative by introducing the first of this picture's new characters, the "house elf" Dobby, a competently realized CG creature who has dropped in to warn Harry away from attending Hogwarts this semester lest he encounter great danger. Dobby nearly succeeds at this task by getting Harry into hot water with the Dursleys, who seek to punish the lad by confining him to his room indefinitely, but Harry eventually is rescued via floating car (adding Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang to the list of children's classics pilfered by Rowling) by the Weasleys, with whom he will stay until the start of school.

However, Harry's troubles have just begun. The young wizard is beset by all manner of bizarre misfortunes, including a curiously botched trip to Diagon Alley and an inability to access Platform 9 for the train to Hogwarts, which necessitates a perilous journey to the school that ends in Harry and Ron's being nearly flattened by an angry "Whomping Willow." The boys are threatened with, but narrowly avoid, expulsion; nevertheless, it's an inauspicious beginning to a school year that keeps on getting worse. Harry's rival, Draco Malfoy, has been named to the Slytherin Quidditch team as its seeker, and his father's armed the whole team with top-of-the-line broomsticks. Ronald's magic wand is broken, rendering all of his spells disastrously errant. And, worst of all, the ominous sounding "Chamber of Secrets" has been opened, which threatens the very lives of Hogwart's students.

The Chamber and its history comprise the thematic heart of this second Potter installment, fleshing out for the first time in the series the idea of "Purebloods" and "Mudbloods." The Chamber, we are told, was created by the most malevolent of the school's founders, Salazar Slytherin, after his attempt to bar Mudbloods — those with one, or maybe even (as in the case of Hermione Granger) two "muggle" parents — from attending Hogwarts was thwarted. This infuriated Slytherin, who thereafter fled Hogwarts, but not before creating the titular Chamber, which can only be opened by the rogue wizard's heir, upon which day the school will be purged of all Mudbloods in one horrible and swift magic pogrom.

*          *          *

Awfully weighty stuff for a kid's film, huh? Not to worry: This troublesome concept of ethnic cleansing in the magic community gets effectively muted, whether intentionally or no (it leaves a slightly more lasting impression in the book) by the frenzied plot, which never pauses long enough for the sinister implications of such ideas to take root. Mostly, Columbus and Kloves latch onto Harry's fear of being the heir of Slytherin; thus, the film becomes a more gentle meditation on discovering, and growing comfortable with, one's own identity.

Most notable about this installment are the new faces added into the mix, in particular such immensely talented actors as Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy. Branagh camps it up as the vain Lockhart, a self-promoting wizard whose worldly boasts of genius, found in the pages of narcissistic tomes like Magical Me, are backed up by sheer ineptitude in the classroom. No matter that the man is a fraud; he's a dapper Casanova who covers up his shortcomings through his mastery of memory spells. Isaacs, on the other hand, is all sneering menace as Lucius, Draco's ruthlessly intimidating father with designs on the future of Hogwarts that do not include Dumbledore.

Good as the new additions are, the returning cast members are inconsistent. Of course, the adults are flawless, from Maggie Smith's warmly maternal Professor McGonagall and the late Richard Harris's wise and encouraging headmaster Albus Dumbledore, to the company's MVP, Robbie Coltrane, as the loveable giant Hagrid. But the children are irritatingly off, which is surprising given Columbus's well-earned reputation as a skilled moppet-wrangler. Daniel Radcliffe is, once again, a serviceable Harry, and Rupert Grint overcomes his glaring vocal maturity by mugging amusingly, if excessively, as Ron. However, Emma Watson — so good as Hermione in the first film — is distressingly affected this time out, overdoing her mannerisms (which, one would think, could easily be toned down by an attentive director). Tom Felton's Draco is similarly off the mark in contrast with his work in the previous picture. Perhaps the truncated production time for this enormous project hampered Columbus from being able to finesse his younger actors. Whatever the problem, there's no denying that their work here often is distracting.

Depending on how one looks at it, Chris Columbus has been blessed with a common touch, which, despite the Potter films' underwhelming professionalism, has given this series its sea legs and allowed the franchise to ably (and profitably) tread water until the meatier stories arrive. Starting with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the franchise finally will be armed with some thematically substantial tales that could quite possibly place these films in the vaunted company of the most beloved children's classics. But that is a challenge that will require the talents of a mature artist able not only to get those stories up on the screen, but to conjure a mystical atmosphere that will complement the enchanting production design. In other words, Harry Potter will finally require the eye of a magician.

Goodbye, Columbus. Hello, Cuaron.

*          *          *

As befitting a worldwide box-office sensation, Warner Home Video has spared no expense or effort in delivering Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on DVD. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is gorgeous, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (offered in both English and Spanish) is impeccable. But the extras, while plentiful, are a mixed bag:

— Clarence Beaks



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