For twelve months, fans have been anxiously awaiting the release of the second film-adapted installment of J.K. Rowling's enormously popular "Harry Potter" novels. While never having read the books, 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
" was a magical, quality family entertainment. It was a little rough around the edges, with the pace lagging at times, but still managed to weave quite an arresting spell. Once again directed by Chris Columbus, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is bigger, faster, funnier, and darker. It also lacks the deep soul and character nuances of its predecessor, in a race to the finish line that still clocks in at a robust 161 minutes. Since the film goes by in a relative flash, Columbus and returning screenwriter could have afforded to slow things down a notch.
A new year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is upon 12-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and he couldn't be happier. Unhappy and mistreated by his snotty Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), Harry is visited by Dobby the House Elf (voiced by Toby Jones), who warns him that he is in grave danger if he returns to school. Harry predictably doesn't listen and, following a thrilling chase with friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in a flying car after they miss their train, are settled back into Hogwarts. Harry and Ron are also reunited with brainy best friend Hermione (Emma Watson).
When students begin to go into a petrified comatose state, Harry, Ron, and Hermione realize something is definitely not right at Hogwarts. Their investigation leads them to the Chamber of Secrets, where a mythical giant snake, known as a basilisk, seems to be behind the dire circumstances. Also a suspect is respected giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who is either being set up or whose friendliness may simply be a false facade.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" follows the same general pattern of "Sorcerer's Stone
:" a prologue with Harry's miserable relatives; the trip to Hogwarts; the start of classes, friendships, and foes; a Quidditch match; and, finally, the injection of the main storyline. There is a comfort level to this familiar outline, helped immeasurably by the entire returning cast and a few choice new additions. Kenneth Branagh (1999's "Wild Wild West
") is a splashy standout as narcissistic Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart; Jason Isaacs (2002's "The Tuxedo
") is appropriately menacing and hateful as Lucius Malfoy, father of Harry's bullying classmate Draco (Tom Felton); 36-year-old Shirley Henderson (2001's "Bridget Jones's Diary
") amazingly portrays ghostly school girl Moaning Myrtle, who haunts the ladies' bathroom; and Dobby the House Elf is beautifully animated, emotionally endearing, and well-voiced by Toby Jones.
Reprising their central roles, the performances from Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are at the same level they were a year agojust noticeably getting older. As Harry, Radcliffe is bland but perfectly cast; he represents the heroic everyman, and he does it well. More entertaining is Rupert Grint, a comic delight as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson, a lovely Hermione who, unfortunately, has little to do this time. The adult performers are mostly wasted, but fulfill the requirements of their roles with sophistication, particularly the late and great Richard Harris (2002's "The Count of Monte Cristo
"), as Albus Dumbledore, and Maggie Smith (2002's "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
"), as the stern but caring Minerva McGonagall.
There are aspects of "Chamber of Secrets" that director Chris Columbus has certainly improved upon since "Sorcerer's Stone
," although it also may be due to Rowling's source material. The film is quicker and not without a strong helping of edge-of-your-seat action scenes, particularly the flying car ride to Hogwarts and a giant spider attack in the spooky Dark Forest. The Quiddith match has been transformed this time into the kind of daring and dangerous rollercoaster ride you would find in a "Star Wars" movie, complete with a musical chord (from composer John Williams) that slyly pays homage to George Lucas. And the howlera screaming letterthat Ron receives from his angry mother (Julie Walters) is superbly realized for the screen. The visual effects, courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic, are also more seamless than they came off in the first picture.
Whereas "Sorcerer's Stone
" took its time in setting up the many ensemble characters and their setting, "Chamber of Secrets" unfortunately gets bogged down in too many rapid-fire set-pieces, the majority of which feel episodic and unconnected to what has come before and what follows. The lack of heartfelt character interactionparticularly the critical budding friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermioneis too often sorely overlooked in favor of flashy visuals and plot-heavy exposition. The same goes for the slack treatment of a passing school year. Save for a single shot of a snowy Hogwarts landscape, the story feels as if it takes place in a matter of weeks, rather than months. These key misjudgments give "Chamber of Secrets" a somewhat hollow and rushed core that it never completely fills.
Problems aside, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is overflowing with imagination and glorious visuals (the grandly luscious production design by Stuart Craig is a character in and of itself). Despite failing to equal its precursor
, the film will entertain adults and is an undoubted treat for children, especially because it encourages an expansion of the mind rarely seen in this genre. Had as much time been spent on the writing and development as was obviously spent on the computer-generated effects, it could have been a true modern classic. As is, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is an engaging and often thrilling experience, but it is far from deep, and doesn't emotionally resound as it should.