May 24, 2015

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Three days after the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, filming of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets began. That's what happens I guess when you have a young cast that will quickly going to grow out of their roles if you wait too long. Even so, the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have visibly matured since the first movie which makes the series an interesting growing-up project as you watch these three over the years. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, this is unfortunately Richard Harris' final HP movie as he passed away during post-production of Chamber.

Chris Columbus was back in the directing chair for this one and Steve Kloves also returned as screenwriter. Like Philosopher's Stone, they took a very direct and faithful route for adapting Chamber of Secrets from its source material which can be a good and a bad thing. Either way, the last thing Warner Brothers and Chris Columbus wanted to do was alienate established fans so it's an understandable decision. Funnily enough, Chamber is the shortest book of them all but was turned into the longest movie of the entire series.


At a Glance

Genre: adventure, family, fantasy
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Produced by: David Heyman, Michael Barnathan, David Barron, etc.
Written by: Steve Kloves
Music by: John Williams
Running time: 161 minutes
Production company: 1492 Pictures, Warner Bros., Heyday Films, etc.
Distributed by: Warner Bros., Karo Premiere, Toho Art House, etc.
Country: United Kingdom, United States, Germany
Language: English
Budget: $100,000,000
Box office: $878,979,634 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Christian Coulson, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Robert Hardy, Shirley Henderson, Mark Williams, Bonnie Wright, Harry Melling, Toby Jones, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Chris Rankin, Matthew Lewis, Devon Murray, David Bradley



Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) hasn't received a letter from any of his friends all summer. With his aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Richard Griffiths) intending to keep him away from Hogwarts after an unfortunate visit from a house elf (voice: Toby Jones), Harry is trapped in a world he doesn't belong in. Luckily for him, Ron (Rupert Grint) hasn't forgotten about him. With Fred (James Phelps) and George (Oliver Phelps), they help him escape using an enchanted car that can fly. All appears to be right again.


Every Harry Potter movie gets darker. That's just how it is and there's no doubt that Chamber of Secrets succeeds in that. It turns out that the wizarding world, just like the muggle world, isn't quite as perfect as you would think. We learn that there are wizard families who consider other wizards/witches born to one or two muggle parents inferior to "pure blood" wizards/witches which shatters the illusion that everyone just magically gets along. That's not all. Not far from the magical warmth of Diagon Alley is Knockturn Alley which is full of shady characters. Take Hogwarts which had become a home to Harry. We learn that it has a pretty sinister past and that past is coming back to haunt the school in a big way.

So even though it's easy to be as overjoyed as Harry is to be returning to Hogwarts after a long summer with his good for nothing aunt, uncle and cousin (Harry Melling), the darker colour palette and generally ominous atmosphere hints at the bad to come. Probably in an attempt to keep things relatively light anyway, screenwriter Steve Kloves still tries to insert as much comedy as he can in the first half of the film. That's my impression anyway. While I got no problem with there being some humour in Harry Potter (after all, this is a kid's movie), I don't think the humour here is always up to the task. Also, as great as Tom Felton is, there's maybe a bit too much sneering Malfoy going on here.

Chamber of Secrets is the longest film of the series and more than ever there seems to be a lot of running time dedicated to fantasy-action sequences. While there are some pretty good ones, there does come a time when too much of a good thing is just too much. The flying car to Hogwarts sequence feels like an excuse to have Harry and Ron screaming as much as possible and the trip into the Forbidden Forest was probably a bit unnecessary even if it is a bit that I like. Point is, Chamber doesn't need to be this long and could've benefited from some time in the editing room.

I know it sounds like I'm hating on Chamber of Secrets, but that's not really the case. I do it find it one of the more problematic entries in the series though. It's nice to see that Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have improved their acting, but over-expressiveness is still at times a bit of an issue. The costumes and the set design however are still as spectacular as ever. There's no doubt that significant work was put into making the world of Harry Potter look convincing and production designer Stuart Craig deserves major credit for that.

I am however disappointed by the general lack of Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in Chamber of Secrets. We hardly get any scenes with them which is a real shame. All the same, what we do get are some great scenes from Kenneth Branagh and Jason Isaacs. Branagh is insufferable as Gilderoy Lockhart and Isaacs is devilishly cruel. After the many times of watching this HP entry, I'm always on full alert when their scenes come up. Another standout to me despite probably less than five minutes of screen time is Mark Williams as the Weasley patriarch. He always cracks me up without fail in his one real scene.

Action-wise, the climactic battle at the end is a bit disappointing though. While the whole thing is less rushed than what we got in Philosopher's Stone, the choreography seems a bit off right before the end. It's a minor observation I suppose and the "foe" is pretty well done anyway. The answers that we get to all the question that come up are quite satisfying too. What I can't really forgive though is the overbearing cheesiness of the ending. The Philosopher's Stone was endearingly sentimental, but Chamber of Secrets goes a bit too far for my liking and feels very Chris Columbus-y.

There's a lot to like in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets even with all its issues. The special effects have aged very well, even better than those in Philosopher's Stone and there's no doubt that as a book adaptation, CoS is extremely faithful. There was a lot of effort that was put into making that written world come to life while remaining in family-friendly territory and that's where these first two Harry Potter movies truly succeed. For me, the next step in Harry Potter is where things get truly interesting.



Related Reviews:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) 
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) 
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011) 

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