The triumph of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" derives not from its marvelous fairy-tale visions, nor from its blending of fantastic storytelling and a sonorous score that punches up every scene, but from its cast.
With Kenneth Branagh and Jason Isaacs joining an already choice ensemble, it is the human element that makes this film such richly enjoyable hocus-pocus.
Christopher Columbus' second and final effort in transferring J.K. Rowling to the screen runs on a bit too long, at more than 2½ hours. Don't they know that this is a children's film, not some Wagnerian myth? And, as its story is drawn from a book, it often feels episodic, chapter by chapter by chapter.
Yet from the young stars, who exhibit considerable growth, to such veterans as Maggie Smith and Richard Harris, in his last gasp as the sage Albus Dumbledore, the people of Hogwarts compensate for the epical length of the second school year.
The elfin Dobby, an oppressed servant who resembles an emaciated Yoda, sets Harry's return to Hogwarts in motion. Poor Dobby turns up at the most inopportune moment, when Uncle Vernon is throwing a party for some clients. After Dobby dumps the gloppy dessert atop the client's wife, Harry becomes a prisoner of his dreadful Muggle family. But three of the Weasley boys fly in, having borrowed their dad's magicked if faded Ford Anglia, and carry off Harry. Then, it is off to Hogwarts in the same jalopy, even though Dobby has warned of the dangers of returning to the School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.
At the center of Rowling's second volume is an unseen dark force, which petrifies a cat, then begins to turn the student body into statuary. But our young orphan wizard must also face off with Tom Felton's sneering Draco Malfoy, the fascistic rich boy of Slytherin House, rival of Harry's Griffyndor, and with Isaacs' white-maned, sinister Lucius Malfoy, the snotty brat's manipulative father. Bloody writings on a wall, mysterious voices only Harry can hear, small spiders and the giant Aragog and his hungry brood, and the great serpent known as the basilisk all keep the boy sleuth busy.
While plumbing the "Chamber of Secrets," Daniel Radcliffe's thoughtful, often grimy-visaged Harry emerges as a sort of junior Sherlock Holmes, with Rupert Grint's more timorous yet clear-sighted Ron Weasley as his Holmes. Emma Watson's ringletted, pre-Raphaelite Hermione Granger, a Muggle child taunted by Draco as a "mudblood," serves as the brain trust. As in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," they are an endearing threesome.
Branagh takes the lead among the faculty, with a plummy, prideful portrayal of Gilderoy Lockhart, a much-published celebrity wizard who perpetually fails to live up to his press clippings. Elegantly effete in vests and capes, topped by a blond pompadour, Branagh gilds the kingly Gilderoy with just the right sheen in a masterly comic portrait of a egoistic poseur.
Harris, on the other hand, exudes wisdom and compassion as Albus Dumbledore, the ancient headmaster. It is a deeply sympathetic performance, a moving coda to a long and impressive, if sometimes turbulent, career. Maggie Smith, as the strict but motherly Professor Minerva McGonagall, has less to do, but she nicely expostulates on the secrets of the long-hidden Chamber. Alan Rickman's brilliant, menacing Severus Snape (what perfect casting) has a smaller part this time but makes the most of it. Robbie Coltrane's huge, hirsute Hagrid, vastly likable as ever, plays a central role, as his past becomes clear.
The screenplay by Steve Kloves, who also wrote the first film, jettisons a difficult Death Day Party for ghosts, featuring John Cleese's Nearly Headless Nick, who flitters about fleetingly. But Shirley Henderson sets out an absurdly self-pitying, but also touching portrait of Moaning Myrtle, the phantasmal presence in the downstairs girls' bathroom that figures so significantly in the plot.
Columbus serves up another game of Quidditch, in which Harry is badly injured but manages to save the day by snatching the Snitch. This time, it is more technically proficient than in the first film. The process work in the flying car sequences sometimes looks on the antique side. But the monster work will deliver shivers and perhaps even some screams, with Aragog's eyes glowing in a massive hairy head (no wonder he is Hagrid's friend), and the basilisk surging about and flashing massive, dagger-like teeth (thank heaven for Dumbledore's beautiful red phoenix, Fawkes).
Although some criticized the first film for sticking too close to the novel, this is a near-sacred obligation when handling such holy writ. Adaptations of Stephen King have often failed because of their carelessness with the author's plots.
Columbus crams an impressive amount of the story into this film, and he and his special-effects wizards realize some of Rowling's ideas most grandly. The Howler sent by Ron's mother, screechingly voiced by Julie Walters, turns out to be a scream. And the shrieking mandrake roots unpotted under the direction of Miriam Margolyes' good-witch Mrs. Sprout rank with the most horrific of terrible babies.
The second film runs on and on, but then so did the first. And this Book 2 seems destined to succeed munificently. So bring on Book 3 - though we must wonder whether Columbus will be surpassed, or as sorely missed as Richard Harris - no matter who takes his place.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times