Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

It has been a long year since our noble young wizard in training came to the big screen. Eager fans everywhere are now ready, willing and able for the next installment from J.K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

Laura's Review: B+

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is imprisoned by the Dursleys who are forbidding him to return to Hogwarts for his sophomore year. One night in his new, upstairs bedroom Harry's visited by Dobby (voice of Toby Jones), a house elf, who is desperate to warn Harry not to return to Hogwarts but unwilling to tell him why. Harry's best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) comes through, though, rescuing Harry and getting him back to school where they'll face real evil in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

The second installment proves the charm for Harry Potter. Now that the ensemble cast is comfortable in their movie personas, the sterility of the establishing film has mostly lifted to allow some real magic to take place on screen. Still, screenwriter Steve Kloves' and director Chris Columbus' slavish faithfulness to J.K. Rowling's' rambling source material makes for an overlong film (160 minutes) that begins to lose stream just when it should be gathering momentum.

One can't fault the 30 minutes spent before Harry even arrives at the train station, as we're given our first glimpse into the delightful Weasley household where pots scrub and afghans knit themselves. Younger sister Ginny Weasley's (Bonnie Wright) crush on Harry is established and we're introduced to Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams, "The Borrowers"). Harry's school supply trek with the Weasleys to Diagon Alley gives Julie Waters a chance to shine as no-nonsense Mrs. Weasley giggles like a schoolgirl in the presence of Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branaugh), an egoist promoting his biography 'Magical Me.' The enmity between the Weasleys and snobbish Voldemort follower Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs, "The Patriot") also comes bubbling to a head when Draco (Tom Felton) takes an opportunity to chide Harry.

A "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" style journey to Hogwarts ensues, albeit one with far more danger, after Ron and Harry are denied access to Platform 9 3/4. The magic car lands the boys in a womping willow AND major trouble for breaking several rules of wizardry. The friends resume classes and Quidditch, but the school faces jeopardy when messages about the heir of Slytherin opening the Chamber of Secrets appear on the walls in blood and students are found literally petrified. When Harry unwittingly shows himself to be a parselmouth (one who can speak to snakes), all eyes turn to him as the possible Slytherin descendent. Hermione (Emma Watson), a non-pureblood target of the Slytherin founder's secret menace, sets out to find a solution, but is soon frozen in a Hogwarts ward. A complaint from Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson, "24 Hour Party People"), a ghost who haunts the girls' lavatory, leads Harry to the invisible diary of Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson) which implicates Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) in the prior disastrous opening of the chamber.

"Harry" provides its first surprise when Radcliffe delivers his first line in a voice several octaves lower than the one he had in "Sorcerer's Stone." The young actor's maturity is a plus, however, although it is doubtful if the current trio of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson will be able to complete the series (even if Henderson, a 36 year old actress, is portraying the ghost of a schoolgirl). Watson also benefits from experience.

The new additions are all on target. Branaugh gleefully creates a pompous, egotistical poseur as the ineffectual Lockhart. Jason Isaacs is once again typecast as a villain, but he does it so well, here with his son Draco's blondness reflected in long flowing tresses of an aristocratic nobleman. Mark Williams portrays red-haired Weasley decency as Malfoy's financially challenged foe. Shirley Henderson adeptly uses her high pitched range to convince as a poutish ghost, although her spin on Moaning Myrtle is more like a Wailing Wendy. Miriam Margolyes ("The Age of Innocence") is blissfully non-nuturing as Professor Sprout, countered by Gemma Jones ("Bridget Jones's Diary") as caring nurse Madam Pomfrey. Toby Jones brings life to the computer generated house elf Dobby with his worried voicing.

Rickman continues to be the best of the adult cast, with his dark Professor Snape here showing the first tantalizing bit of support for Harry, but the recently deceased Richard Harris, so perfect in the role of kindly Dumbledore, will be sorely missed. How ironic that after Harris' death we first meet Dumbledore's familiar, Hawkes, a Phoenix which dies in a burst of flames only to be reborn from the ashes.

Dobby, with his masochistic self punishment a cartoonish display of violence preparing the audience for more menacing reality later in the film, is the first of "Chamber of Secrets'" fabulous visual effect work by ILM supervisors Jim Mitchell ("Sleepy Hollow") and Nick Davis ("Sorcerer's's Stone"), which also includes the chamber's secret monster, Gremlin-like Cornish Pixies and an army of spiders. Professor Sprout's mandrake roots like evil, squalling baby yams. An 'Eat slugs!' spell reversed on Ron by Draco has nasty results. Poor Ron is also the target of a 'howler,' a chastisement by letter imaginatively realized for the screen.

While this film has more life than its predecessor, Columbus could have achieved even tighter results by trimming Rowling's' meanderings. A visit to a giant spider gives an opportunity to the special effects team, but adds little to the story (in fact, the magic car's mysterious nick-of-time arrival is left unexplained). Even more superfluous is Harry and Ron's enchanted visit to Draco as his loutish sidekicks. While the pacing of the final showdown within the titular chamber could perhaps only be improved slightly, Columbus allows his dark tone to falter with a sterile production design. Parents should be warned that the violence of this installment may be too intense for small tots, although I heard not a peep at the child-packed screening I attended.

Overall, though, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is an extremely successful family entertainment. This one does for the series what "The Wrath of Khan" did for "Star Trek."

Robin's Review: B

While I have read all of the Potter books published to date and dutifully attended the opening of the first film, I can't say that I am a fan of the diminutive wizard who has attained such worldwide fame. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was a highly crafted, Hollywood-manufactured flick with lots of flashy F/X that pleased its ready-made audience to big box office numbers. Helmer Chris Columbus and his huge cast and crew are destined to even more acclaim and cash with "Chamber of Secrets."

This time around the kids are more comfortable in their roles as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and it shows in the final product. The supernatural sleuths, spurned on by Harry's past (and the lightning bolt scar given to him by "He who must go unnamed (or something like that)," must risk life and limb to save their beloved Hogwarts School, using magic and imagination to succeed. The young stars have matured and more fully take on their character personas.

The supporting cast, again, includes the venerable veterans returning to their characters. The late Richard Harris will be missed as wise and kindly headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Maggie Smith does nothing special in her reprise as Professor McGonagall. Alan Rickman continues his dour, secretive role as Harry's apparent opponent Professor Snape. The wonderful surprise performance in "Chamber" is given by Kenneth Branagh as the egotistical (and totally fake) Professor Against the Dark Arts Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh is over the top as the handsome celebrity professor and author who hinders more than he helps in solving the story's puzzle and appears to be having more fun than anyone. A close second in the having fun department is provided by Jason Isaacs as the snooty non-Muggle wizard Lucius Malfoy (Draco's father).The rest of the cast is peppered with other vet appearances such as John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Robbie Coltraine (Hagrid), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon) and Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia).

The script by Steve Kloves adheres to the spirit of J.K. Rowling's second Potter book and follows the story fairly accurately. The formula of story/action/humor/story/action/humor helps keep the film's overly long 160 minute run time moving along, but things run out of steam at just before the two-hour mark. At this point I was feeling that things should wrap up soon before realizing there was nearly an hour to go. This is due, in part, in trying to get every action/effects sequence up on the screen - Quiddiche games, sorcerer lessons, battles with evil beings are all given ample time to appeal to the eye of the kids who will flock to see this latest Potter pic.

The special F/X are as finely crafted and executed as any that I have seen. The computer-generate house elf, Dobby (voice of Toby Jones), is the singular most striking visual achievement that represents a move a step closer to the perfection of the CGI craft. There are other effects, galore, as Ron and his brothers borrow their dad's flying car to rescue Harry from the clutches of his wicked stepmother-like Uncle Vernon. The flying Quiddiche matches are handled seamlessly and give fuel to the rivalry for leadership between Harry and his enemy, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).

All in all, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is all the things that made the first film a hit with its target audience. The cast and crew show an increasing comfort level that translates to a more relaxed air in the finished product. It still feels like it's manufactured but well made nonetheless. In any case, this is as critic proof a movie as there can be and the fans will enjoy it immensely.