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Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets
Review written by: Alex Sandell
If you go into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets expecting big changes from last year's, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, you'll inexorably wind up disappointed. Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus have both returned for this second installment, and the pair succeeds splendidly in making a movie that could easily convince the audience that it was filmed at the exact same time as the original, if only those meddling pubescent stars hadn't sprouted up so quickly.
This film is fastidious in its recreation of the look and feel of the first. Everyone involved should be commended for getting the intricate details done right within the small window of time they were given to complete this epic sequel. The similarities in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are there for more than nostalgia over the good old days of 2001; they also serve as a nice surface layer which conveniently hides all of the dark things waiting to reach out and grab you from directly beneath. After viewing the film it becomes evident that the effort made to so faithfully remake the entire world shown to us was done, in large part, to turn that very same world on its head.
Toward the beginning of the film, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) receives a visit from a House Elf named Dobby. The elf, a CG creature who comes off as a masochistic Jar Jar Binks, explains to Harry that he has been trying to prevent him from returning to school, and zealously warns the famous young wizard that he, "must not go back to Hogwarts this year!" Harry predictably ignores Dobby's advice, and returns to the school. While everything looks the same upon his bumpy arrival in his best friend's father's flying car, it isn't long before the character and the audience learn that appearances at Hogwarts can be deceiving.
The world Harry Potter has landed in initially feels far more ominous and oppressive than the one he left months before. After adjusting to the fact that he was nearly killed by a lunatic tree on a murderous rampage upon landing at the school, things seem to go back to normal. Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese) is still floating down the hallways. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is still living outside of the school, forever the expelled student looking in (and this time we find out why). Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) is still the firm but loving teacher we were all scared to death of getting, but were all glad that we eventually got. And, of course the kind wizard, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) is there to dole out wisdom and support to anyone in need of a little of either. But there's something else at Hogwarts this year; an unwelcome presence that only Harry seems to notice.
It was hard for me to imagine Chris Columbus, the man behind warm and fuzzy pictures such as Home Alone, Nine Months and Bicentennial Man could handle the darker edge of the second Potter book. This seemed more like Spielberg territory. To my surprise, Columbus didn't flinch, and the film he created is dark and intense enough to be unsettling, in that fun sort of way, to the under 10 set.
Chris Columbus is far from the perfect director, and some of the problems that plagued the first film still exist. The movie is poorly paced and goes on at least 20 minutes too long. The character of Gilderoy Lockhart, while played with a charming comedic bounce by Kenneth Branagh, becomes nothing more than agonizingly obvious comic relief, in the clumsy hands of Columbus. Both adult and children actors go through the exaggerated facial expressions (think Macaulay Culkin slapping his cheeks and screaming in Home Alone) that have become trademark to any Chris Columbus film. For the second time in a row, the heartwarming friendship between Hagrid and the three main children that is so prominent in the books is all but ignored in the movie. Saddest of all, Columbus creates yet another "greatest hits" version of the novel with this sequel, foregoing the risk of drastically altering any of the book's momentous moments to give the film a life of its own.
But, the movie does have a life, even if every last ounce of it is only surviving thanks to the support kindly provided to it from the pages of the novel. Where I felt that Columbus failed in The Sorcerer's Stone and feel that he succeeds in The Chamber of Secrets is in bringing the book to the screen without losing the magic of the book in the process. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets feels like the novel, where Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone felt like cliff notes. Columbus may pace the film a bit too slowly, but just when you're about to write it off, in comes Moaning Myrtle, or some other inspired character ripped straight from J.K. Rowling's imagination, to suck you back into the movie.
As I hinted at above, Columbus also worked it hard in the scares department. It isn't long into the picture when Harry begins hearing hair-raising voices that may or may not be all in his head. The film only builds in chills from that point on, and throughout the rest of the movie Potter discovers bloody messages on walls, bodies frozen in perpetual fear, and, in one incredibly inspired, well-directed and giddily fun scene, about three million creepy-crawly spiders that are about as forgiving as the Raptors were in Jurassic Park. There was plenty of nervous laughter and gleeful screams in the theater when Chamber of Secrets played, and they weren't just emanating from the kids.
Chris Columbus, warts and all, shouldn't have thrown in the towel on this series. He was just hitting his stride, and I think next time he would have gotten it down to a science. Sadder yet is having to say goodbye to Richard Harris, who so lovingly portrayed Albus Dumbledore. His final scene in the film is touching, and it's sad to think that this excellent actor is no longer with us. But thanks to the dedication and determination from every single person working on this movie, and Harris's devotion to his craft, he got to go out on a strong note.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is well on its way to being the Potter movie fans have been lining up for. Columbus let his hair down a little bit with this one and wasn't too timid to explore the darker side of family entertainment. Because of this, kids will have nightmares for weeks and adults will be entertained for hours, and neither age group could ask for much more than that from their family entertainment dollar.
On a scale of 1-10?
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This review is dedicated
to the memory of Richard Harris
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Text ©(Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].
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