Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) / Fantasy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG for scary images and mild language
Running Time: 161 min.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, John Cleese, Alan Rickman, Shirley Henderson
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenplay: Steven Kloves (based on the book by J.K. Rowling)
Review published November 16, 2002

Upon sight of the first frame of the new Harry Potter flick, there was some applause in the audience, healthy signs that this was a film with much eager anticipation among many.  Perhaps no one in the theater was as eager as the gentleman sitting behind my girlfriend and I, who was not only fired up for the film, coming with a great expectation that he'd have a terrific time.  Whenever anything remotely resembling amusing would happen, he laughed aloud heartily, louder than anyone else and perhaps three times as long.  Seeming to always be seated near a "Laugher," i.e. the type of person who feels compelled to laugh at each and every moment in a film regardless of how funny he may personally find it, my girlfriend and I gave each other very knowing looks, and I whispered to her that we may have picked the wrong seats again. 

However, as annoying as it was in the beginning, as the film progressed, the moments of laughter began to noticeably dwindle, to the point where I almost thought the man may have left, or even better, had been clubbed to death by another less-tolerant theater patron.  I glanced back to look, and sure enough he was there still watching, but clearly not as engaged in the film as he had previously been.  I knew for certain that he had become disengaged, because later, a moment came when the other man he came to see the movie with laughed, and a few seconds later the original "Laugher" had to ask him to repeat the line he laughed at. 

You might ask yourself why I would spend the first two paragraphs talking about another movie-goer in the audience and not about the actual film.  The answer is that it perfectly illustrates what is wrong with the sophomore entry into the Harry Potter series of films.  The original Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had one thing going for it that the second does not, namely, a sense of newness and magical discovery.  I mentioned in the review for the first entry that there were two main reasons why it is a successful film: imaginative writing and the outstanding sets, costumes and special effects.  The second Harry Potter adventure suffers because most of the imagination of how it would look and feel are gone, and as for the sets and costumes, we have seen most of them before already. 

Granted, there are a few new characters in Chamber of Secrets, but they hardly help the cause.  We meet the first of them with Dobby, the CGI character that is every bit as real as Jar Jar Binks, and just as annoying.  He is a scared little creature that has a habit of banging his head into things out of despair to the point where you want to grab him and say, "Enough!" and then bang his head yourself.  There's Kenneth Branagh (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Wild Wild West) playing Gilderoy Lockhart, the most successful svengali in the magic world, hamming it up in a way that is cartoonish and trite.  Jason Isaacs (The Tuxedo, The Patriot) plays Lucius Malfoy, but he's done the villain thing so often, his insidious nature is never in question.

Last, but not least, is the large basilisk of the ending, a creature of pure movie magic, and one which should have been frightening under the proper circumstances, but curiously, is just another special effects monster here.  By the time you get to this scene, the reason we have no fear is abundantly clear.  Even after five total hours of watching them, we still don't really care about these characters, including Harry himself.  Each character has his or her own personality, but they are wafer-thin and rarely deviate to create a sense of dimension.  This is especially true of Harry Potter, a rather flavorless young individual who seems to overcome obstacles only through sheer luck, or someone else appears to get his bacon out of the fire.  If he happened to get chomped by a large snake, I doubt we'd shed a tear.  Knowing there are still more Harry Potter films in the works, is there anyone who really thinks there is much danger in anything?

This speaks to another major problem for the series, and I fear there's not much that can be done about it at this point.  Chris Columbus (Bicentennial Man, Stepmom) realizes that there are millions of fans out there of J.K. Rowling's books, and the trend is not to deviate too much or omit things that normally would get left out to make things better cinematically, at the expense of entertainment value.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets feels every bit like its almost three hour running length, and needlessly so I might add.  What might be a whimsical side story or scene in a book becomes sluggish padding in a film, and there's enough padding in this story to start our own chain of mattress marts.  Too bad they couldn't use some of that padding for the theater seats, as the effects of getting to the theatre early, sitting through the trailers, and then a three hour film will begin to take its toll on your rear end.

In the end, I return to my original comments about the man whose laughter died out as the film progressed.  I too had expectations to be dazzled with magical characters and perilous situations, but Chamber of Secrets had little new to deliver, and hence boredom set in early and no amount of eye-candy or scary moments were able to shake it.  While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had broad appeal to people that have read the book s well as those that haven't, I suspect Chamber of Secrets will appeal only to true fans of the literary series.  Just like watching real magicians, or illusionists as they are called these days, the fanciful feats are enough of a spectacle to thrill us for one show, but not enough to make us want to see it again.   Just like the "Laugher," the "oohs" and "ahs" we might evoke die out once we realize all of the tricks up Harry's sleeve are ones we've seen before.  The worst part is that, at the time you realize it, there are still two hours left to go. 

-- Follows Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and followed by Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.

  Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo