Entering the world of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is like returning to a wondrous summer camp after a years break. You see old friends, meet some new ones, and youre reminded of the magical appeal of a place far away from home. Only after becoming acclimated do you notice what bugs you.
Last years first entry in the movie series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, may not have exceeded J.K. Rowlings book, but it gave a good taste of what made the material special. Rowlings vision is so richly conceived with wizards secretly inhabiting the society of Muggles (non-magical folk) and attending school at a gothic English countryside manor called Hogwarts that director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Kloves aimed primarily to translate it to the screen with reverence.
The first movie excelled as you shared orphan Harrys sense of discovery of a fantastic world and his own wizard powers. It bogged down as it became entrenched in plot. And it never quite achieved a magic it could call its own.
Likewise, Chamber of Secrets is a hoot early on as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe)is rescued from his mean Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, by best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Rons older brothers Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps) in their dads enchanted flying car. Were also happy to be reintroduced to Harry and Rons brainy pal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and the colorful array of Hogwarts authority figures (Richard Harris wise headmaster Dumbledore, Alan Rickmans sneering Professor Snape, Maggie Smiths kind, sharp Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltranes warm, awfully big Hagrid).
In addition, we meet Dobby, a house elf who appears in Harrys room at the Dursleys to warn him of a plot to kill him at Hogwarts. Dobby is annoying by design, so obsequious that he bangs his head against furniture at the mere prospect of giving Harry offense (and thus getting Harry in trouble with the noise) yet so aggressive that hell injure Harry to prevent him from being at Hogwarts.
Dobby is computer generated, with that characteristic rubbery texture that makes so many such characters seem inorganic. Its hard to watch Dobby and not be thinking of special effects. A far more entertaining addition is Kenneth Branagh as Hogwarts new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Gilderoy Lockhart. Hes a preening, grinning self-promoter who dispenses autographs and tall tales with equal enthusiasm.Branagh is perfectly cast, nailing Lockharts unctuousness while, as some of the actors British critics have been keen to point out, sending up his own early self-aggrandizing reputation.
The scenes with Lockhart are the closest this movie series has come to capturing Rowlings cheeky humor. This is one of the two major problems with these Columbus-directed films: The books are far funnier.Columbus and his collaborators have maintained the British flavor of the cast and settings, but they miss the characteristic dry wit. You turn each page of Rowlings prose in anticipation of what fantastic creature, wryly observed detail or sarcastic comment awaits you.
The first hour of Chamber of Secrets contains its fun surprises, such as the plants known as Mandrakes, whose roots resemble and shriek like hellish babies; or the screaming letter, called a Howler, that chews out Ron on his mothers behalf in the dining hall; or the Cornish pixies that fly amok in Lockharts class in Columbus apparent ode to his first produced screenplay, Gremlins.
But the movie is two hours and 41 minutes long, and the humor rarely extends into the second half. This brings us to the other big problem: Harry lacks spunk. In the books hes a good kid but also enjoys mischief: Circumstances may drive him and Ron to violate wizard code and fly the Weasley car to Hogwarts, but theyre obviously excited by the prospect.
Not so in the movie, where Harry remains a duty-first lad who breaks rules only when he must and seems not to derive much enjoyment from doing so. Radcliffe may be proving himself an overly earnest Harry, but the director and writer are likely more responsible for their child actors tone.
Grint remains a likable Ron I couldnt help but smile when I first saw the whole amiable Weasley clan though hes a less polished actor than Radcliffe; his scared takes seem modeled on Jackie Chans. The strong Watson, who practically walked off with the first movie, makes somewhat less of an impression here as Hermiones role is reduced in this story.
Jason Isaacs, the long-haired villain of The Patriot, is similarly malevolent here as Lucius Malfoy, the Dark Arts-admiring father of Harrys ever-sneering rival, Draco (Tom Felton). Harris, who recently died of cancer, seems in rather weak voice.Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of the four Potter books in print. It echoes the first novel in its structure and dungeon-set climax while it sidesteps a sense of life at Hogwarts and packs less emotional punch than the other tales.
Columbus makes improvements in this movie. He tones down John Williams score and gives the Quidditch match more zip, but he doesnt compensate for the books flaws. Hogwarts barely feels lived in. When the movie turns serious, it drags, culminating in a battle that relies heavily on legendary creatures.Columbus also indulges in one of those shamelessly corny curtain calls in which our heroes are shown basking in seemingly endless applause from their schoolmates and, presumably, from us.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is more plot and less discovery than the first movie, an equation Id prefer in reverse. It remains an expertly assembled companion piece to its source material, with charms you cant overlook. But the great Harry Potter should be casting a more powerful spell.
'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'
2 1/2 stars
Directed by Chris Columbus; written by Steve Kloves; based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; photographed by Roger Pratt; edited by Peter Honess; production designed by Stuart Craig; music by John Williams; produced by David Heyman. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:41. MPAA rating: PG (scary moments, some creature violence and mild language).