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With: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson,
Written by: Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling
Directed by: Chris Columbus
MPAA Rating: PG for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language
Running Time: 161
Date: 11/03/2002
IMDB

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hogwarts and All

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The second Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Chamber ofSecrets, arrives as a solid piece of work; it's effortlesslyentertaining, generously faithful to J.K. Rowling's book and more thanjust a bit thrilling.

These stories work so well because of their "Sherlock Holmes"-like mystery qualities. Characters constantly search for clues that lead to more clues. And though the audience never has enough information to solve the mystery themselves, the act of watching the characters at work provides more than enough intrigue.

One would never have imagined the numbingly dull director Chris Columbus (Nine Months, Stepmom and Bicentennial Man) in charge of such an enormously high-profile and intricately detailed series, but he has two things going for him. One is his long association with director Steven Spielberg, who produced many of Columbus' earlier efforts; Columbus seems to have gleaned some of Spielberg's slick and easy ways with action and pacing.

The other is writer Steve Kloves, who may be the real success behind the Potter films. As with his superb adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel Wonder Boys, Kloves brings to the table a handful of rich, sharp characters -- the kind actors love playing.

Witness Kenneth Branagh, who co-stars in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as Gilderoy Lockhart, the charmingly egocentric author who has sold scores of books by slightly embellishing his own skills and achievements. Lockhart has landed a job teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for just this one movie, and he loves nothing more than to gnaw at the scenery.

In one scene, he stages an educational duel with the dour Potions teacher, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), and it's an actor's feast that even we in the audience can taste.

Of course, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson return as our three young heroes -- Harry, Ron and Hermione -- who discover when they return to Hogwarts for their second year that life never gets any easier.

A pint-sized house-elf named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) tries to warn Harry against returning to school -- and sets up a few quasi-dangerous and certainly annoying traps to get him out of the way. Apparently, someone or something has opened the mysterious Chamber of Secrets within the deep recesses of Hogwarts. As a result, several students (and a cat) become petrified and Harry begins hearing voices in his head, among other slightly annoying occurrences.

One of these takes place during a Quidditch match; a rouge Bludger begins chasing Harry around the stadium, threatening to take his head -- or any other convenient body part -- off. Worse, Harry's old nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has now joined the opposing team and plays Harry's same position, Seeker. Both Seekers tear around the joint -- flying on broomsticks underneath the stadium and through the wooden supports -- both snatching at the game-winning Golden Snitch while trying to avoid the deadly Bludger. It's a brilliantly executed, seat-grabbing sequence -- Columbus at his best.

Harry and his crew seem to have gone through a growth spurt since last year, but no one has changed more than Malfoy. His innocent little towhead from Sorcerer's Stone has advanced into a snarling bad boy -- with a few more years he could relieve Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And even though Malfoy belongs to a pureblood family of great wealth and stature, he still speaks with a menacing lower-class cockney accent, like a miniature Sid Vicious.

Aside from these small changes in personnel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has the distinct advantage of avoiding introductions this time around. The action starts up a lot sooner and the characters already feel like old friends. Although we still get a lengthy scene in a Diagon Alley bookstore establishing Malfoy's father (we get it -- he's nasty) and half-hearted attempts to underline the discrimination between pureblood wizards vs. "mixed" blood.

Unfortunately, at about two hours and forty-five minutes, the film does begin to wear out its welcome near the final stretch, after the mystery is completely solved. A silly, ceremonial epilogue (similar to the one in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope) doesn't help matters.

Nevertheless, it's worth the effort to stay through the end credits (with about 10 minutes on special effects people alone) for the very funny Easter egg stashed away afterwards.

Speaking of special effects, the digital animation has vastly improved over the past 12 months. Some of the beasties in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone looked flat; the seams showed. Here, the house elf Dobby and other creatures look a great deal more lifelike. So much so that I wasn't sure whether real-world models were used in some shots. In one shot, Dobby repeatedly bangs a lamp against his head and the light play on his face and body is amazing.

Finally, a word on the late Richard Harris, who makes his last live-action feature film appearance here as the noble Headmaster Dumbledore. As Dumbledore, Harris carries the weight of the world on his shoulders but offers the sincere comfort of a warm blanket. He's a godlike presence in the movie, challenged only by the devilish "He Who Must Not Be Named." In his long career, Harris has been more playful and more sinister, but never as soothing. He may be covered in a robe, a long beard and a high, pointy hat, but he will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

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