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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   Chris Columbus (director) and J.K. Rowling (mystical source of all things Potter)
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   November 15, 2002
Review Date:   November 19, 2002
Audience Rating:   PG
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

There were those who felt that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone suffered a bit from lack of action and excitement. I was not one of them. After all, any muggle movie can have slam-bang action.

What makes Harry Potter's universe such a treat are its less noisy charms, charms of both the English and magic varieties: "bloody hell"s, "bloody brilliant"s and "codswallop"s, nearly headless ghosts, supernaturally festooned great halls, magical conveniences like Floo powder and broomsticks, and, of course, three plucky British schoolchildren navigating the halls of a boarding school under the sneer of a greasy-haired groundskeeper, the beaming smile of a bushy-haired gamekeeper, the scowl of a hard-to-decipher professor of potions, and the kind eyes of generous headmaster.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is, by its very faithfulness to the book of the same the name, more of an action movie than the last one. And the movie doesn't miss a chance to turn one of Harry's mini-adventures into a full-blown theater-shaking action/special-effects set piece (and in some cases, the movie adds an extra level of danger that wasn't in the book). But Chamber of Secrets is not a better movie than Sorcerer's Stone.

Mostly for the simple reason that it's almost impossible for the second bite of a chocolate frog to taste as good as the very first bite. But also partially because the upping of the action quotient threatens to (threatens to, but thankfully does not) push Chamber of Secrets into the realm of pleasing-but-disposable sound-and-fury post-CGI special effects extravaganzas.

The perils in Chamber of Secrets are appropriately perilous. While the computer generated creatures in Chamber of Secrets are not as awe-inspiring as those in The Fellowship of the Ring or as Ray-Harryhausen-meets-Flash-Gordon exotic as those in Attack of the Clones, they have more weight and substance. Chamber of Secrets' Quidditch match, on the other hand, is better than Sorcerer's Stone's because it cuts back on the use of obviously CG human characters.

The rules of Quidditch, by the way, seem very poorly constructed. I can't ever watch (or read about) a Quidditch match without being bothered by it. Okay: the game's over when the Seeker catches the Snitch, right? And the Snitch is worth 150 points, while the goals scored by the other players are worth 10 points a piece. So, unless one team is 150 points ahead of the other, the goals that are scored will have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the game. And, since the game never seems to last long enough for either team to score 150 points in goals, why even bother to try to score goals at all? But assume that the game actually lasts long enough for Gryffindor to score 150 points (unlikely), and assume that Gryffindor has 170 points, while Slytherin has only 10 (super unlikely). If that happened, the Slytherin Seeker would not want to catch the Snitch, because his team would automatically lose. I don't knowÖ maybe J.K. Rowling writes about a match that lasts for more than 150 points in the third or fourth book.

While I'm digressing, there's another matter: while there are plenty of us who enjoy both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, there are also whiffs of the us-versus-them mentality, with the pro-Rowlings looking at Gandalf like he's a boring old grandpa, and the pro-Tolkiens looking at Harry Potter like he's a snot-nosed brat. So, I'd like to remind the anti-Potter snobs that the noses you're turning up are very much like the noses that were upturned decades ago when The Lord of the Rings first became such a phenomenon.

And Potter fans, don't restrict your reading lists to books published after 1990. Because though J.K. Rowling has created a vibrant and unique fantasy world of her own, she is nonetheless standing on the shoulders of that triumvirate of great old-school English fantacists, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien (J.R.R. was doing almost-but-not-quite-vanquished evil sorcerers, long-bearded wizard protectors, and dark woods filled with giant you-know-whats before J.K.was born).

What makes the Chamber of Secrets movie a keeper is the same thing that made the Sorcerer's Stone movie a keeper (and the same thing that raises J.K. Rowling's books above the level of pop-culture knock-offs into the realm of could-be-classics): great characters, a keen sense of whimsy, and a detailed fantasy world that's a delight to explore.

There's always a bit of new magic around the corner (the "screamer" that Ron gets is one of my favorites), and plenty of wizard culture and terminology to soak up (mudbloods, and the origin of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry). There's so much fun: Ron's voice going up a few registers when he's scared, and wizards wielding wands like fencing swords, and Dobby the house elf, clearly the product of a twisted love affair between Yoda and Gollum, banging himself about the head with whatever objects are close at hand.

The film's main notable flaw is in its eagerness to shoehorn in everything from the book (except Headless Nick's deathday party), it doesn't have time to press home some chilling moments (after reading Rowling's vivid rendering of the mudblood and Tom Riddle plot points, the movie versions seemed a little drab). But as a book adaptation, the things that the movie doesn't accomplish are dwarfed by what it does accomplish.

On the performance side, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint are (once again) bloody brilliant as Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. The supporting cast is faboo (Alan Rickman, as Snape, wields cool disdain like a master), and even the players with little screen-time (Neville Longbottom, Argus Filch, and Oliver Wood) feel like old friends. As for the new faces, Kenneth Branaugh is a great Gilderoy Lockhart. Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, is fine, though I think his candle is rather dim when compared to Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Richard Harris.

Speaking of which, now that Harris is dead as a Dumbledore-nail, who will be cast as the headmaster in the next film? Given the dignity and delicate touch that Harris brought to the role, he seems damn near irreplaceable.

That sad blot aside, when school finally comes back into session in 2004 with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I'll hop on the train as eagerly as Harry after a long unpleasant summer with the Dursleys.

RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers was terrified when he found, "The Chamberpot of Secrets has been opened" scrawled on his hallway wall.

 
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