Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Wild About Harry

One of the joys of the Harry Potter movies, I can see right now, is going to be watching its young cast grow up onscreen. (Assuming, that is, that the producers stick with them, and I hope they do.) If the films can stay to the annual schedule — note to J.K. Rowling: hurry up with Order of the Phoenix or this could become a problem down the road — and the folks in charge keep hiring Daniel Radcliffe and Co. back for more, I’m going to be like those horrible aunts at weddings and christenings who scream with delight when they see the kids and squeal, “Oh my god, you got so big!”

Cuz honestly, this first thing I thought when Radcliffe appeared onscreen in The Chamber of Secrets was “Look how tall he got!” See, there’s a scene early in The Sorcerer’s Stone — which, as a huge geek, I had to rewatch before the Chamber screening — in the kitchen of the Dursleys’ Privet Road house, and Harry’s head barely clears the stovetop. This year, in the same kitchen, he could knock his noggin into the vent fan over it if he’s not careful.

Ah, *sigh.* They grow up so fast.
But I can imagine how much more thrilling it must be for all of Harry’s preteen and early teen fans, who get to relate to Harry onscreen as a contemporary just as they can in the books. They get to see Harry growing up at the same pace they are, and it only makes even more genuine the delicious feeling that Harry and Hogwarts and magic are real.

I grew up with Star Wars and have lived with it my whole life, and going back to Tatooine in The Phantom Menace was like coming home. But I’m astounded to experience that same feeling with The Chamber of Secrets, like Hogwarts is a place I’ve known my entire life. It’s stunning how quickly Harry and his world have become so familiar to me, so unquestionably authentic. So every moment of Chamber is comfortable — even the scary parts, and there are a few, have a kind of secure contentedness to them, though that’s less a factor of Harry’s world than it is the result of being led by the hand through The Bad Stuff by a movie that’s more concerned with giving us a good time than in challenging us.

This isn’t Art, and it’s not Fil-um — it’s not even for muggles who aren’t already besotted with Harry. The joy of The Chamber of Secrets is in visiting places and people we already know, and once again director Chris Columbus (Stepmom, Home Alone) gets them precisely right. That’s exactly what Professor Sprout’s greenhouse looks like, and of course she had to be played by the wonderful Miriam Margolyes (End of Days, Magnolia). And the Weasleys’ home, to which Harry escapes after an awful summer break back at the Dursleys… it’s cozy and warm and full of love and you wish you could spend the whole movie there. But of course, Hogwarts beckons.

Just as Harry and Ron and Hermione are no longer the new kids at the school, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are far more comfortable onscreen this time around, and in far more proactive roles than in Stone, they are far more focused, really inhabiting the characters now (another reason not to recast later). With the introductions dealt with in the first movie, Chamber jumps right into the action, and the kids actually get stuff to do, and they’re all terrific. Radcliffe is extremely convincing in a situation that can stymie the best of grownup actors, performing against a nonexistent costar, in this case, Dobby the House Elf (the voice of Toby Jones), the most believable CGI creature yet to appear onscreen with actual human actors. Grint already has the best name for a comic actor, and he demonstrates the willingness to look foolish that all great comic actors need: I’m sure he has no control over the adolescent cracking of his voice, which swings into a high falsetto when Ron is scared or nervous, which is often, but he gets high marks for allowing himself to take advantage of a situation that makes most teenaged boys cringe with embarrassment. Watson, on the other hand, is the model of female decorum — we all know girls mature faster than boys, right? — especially in one scene, toward the end of the film, that requires her to swing between childish ebullience at the joy of reuniting with friends and the adolescent awareness of, ahem, boys as, you know, boys, one that may hint at possible romantic entanglements to come in later movies.

If the kids are more serious in their play this time around, then the grownups are just having a blast. You know they’re all here because their kids or grandkids would never speak to them again if they turned down a role in a Harry Potter movie, and they make the most of it. Everybody returning from Stone is having a fine time — though it’s bittersweet seeing the recently deceased Richard Harris (The Count of Monte Cristo, Gladiator) dodder around as Dumbledore. But it’s Kenneth Branagh (How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog, The Road to El Dorado) as celebrity blowhard Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs (The Tuxedo, Sweet November) as the hiss-worthy Lucius Malfoy who steal the show. Branagh has never been this willing to look goofy, never been so intent on demolishing his image of the Serious Actor who maybe takes himself too seriously. And Isaacs is simply deliciously evil.

Oh man, I’m such a Harry Potter geek, but this is one fun movie. It’s scarier and funnier and meaner and faster than the first one. But mostly it’s just more Harry, and that’s a wonderful thing. Of course too much from the book got cut out, but I say that not in complaint but out of a desire to wallow as long as possible in Harry’s world. I know there’s no realistic way it all could have been translated to the screen, though I’d have happily sat through an 8-hour movie. I’ll just have to reread the book again while I wait for the next movie.

Addendum 04.17.03
Like Harry and his friends, the Harry Potter DVD has grown up considerably from last year. The home version of Chamber of Secrets has a lot more to offer than the simple pleasure of being a Harry geek in the privacy of one’s own living room. The first of the two discs features a nice transfer of the film, a brief recap of the events of Sorcerer’s Stone, the theatrical trailer, and a bare-bones listing of the cast and crew. Over on disc two, which sports some of the most beautiful DVD menus I’ve seen, is the fun stuff. There are extra and alternative scenes, tons of ’em. Some are only snippets — the stammerings of poor first-year Colin Creevey, so starstruck in Harry’s presence; a brief intro to blueblood muggle Justin Finch-Fletchley; more rogue bludger, more of the delightful Weasley twins, and more flying Ford Anglia. But some of the new scenes are meatier. Now we get to see Harry’s near-encounter with the Malfoy boys — Draco and Lucius — in the dark-arts shop in Knockturn Alley, which is pretty vital, I’d have thought, for setting up much of the later action, and hey, another opportunity to see Jason Isaacs’ slithery performance as Lucius is a Good Thing. Some poignant moments, hinting at Harry’s potential dark side and his doubts about himself, are included. And there’s Kenneth Branagh’s in one new scene, hamming it up hilariously as Gilderoy Lockhart and having the most fun he’s ever had onscreen, it seems.

The Sorcerer’s Stone extras were very kiddie-oriented, and there’s plenty for the youngsters here, too, of course: games and activities, some playable via DVD-ROM (PCs only). But there’s plenty here to pique kids’ in the art of filmmaking: an interview with J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves about adapting the book and working in collaboration; and the “Build a Scene” feature, which describes the creation of Dumbledore’s office, from the blueprint provided by the script through the physical construction of the set and its dressing by set decorators and propmasters and on to the lighting and cinematography and postproduction. It’s a little simplistic for sophisticated movie buffs, but it’s a charming way to introduce kids to the fascinating world behind the camera.

Watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

share and enjoy