|Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Friday, 11 April 2003|
New and improved describes “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” a sequel that outshines its already charming predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (or “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” if you’re in the U.K.). Like “Stone,” “Chamber” is admirably faithful to both the letter and the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s novel about the young wizard of the title; also like “Stone,” “Chamber” is directed by Chris Columbus and scripted by Steve Kloves, with all of the main cast members returning to their roles and Kenneth Branagh joining the ensemble in one of the most perfect pieces of casting in recent memory.
The first time out, there was a sort of breathless apprehension among viewers who’d loved the books -- would the filmmaking team manage to maintain the magic of the source material, or would they either get needlessly creative or embarrassingly cynical and mess everything up? Those unversed in “Potter” lore simply hoped for the best, as when fantasy goes bad, it can go very bad indeed. Happily, Columbus, Kloves and Co. kept the first movie on track, generating a sense of wonder and fun with a hint of danger, while avoiding the repulsive preciousness that can creep into the genre when young protagonists are involved.
The wonder and fun are very present and the preciousness is still blessedly absent in “Chamber,” though the danger is rather more pronounced (parents with easily scared little ones should take that PG-13 advisory seriously). There’s also a hint of greater confidence -- the filmmakers know that the audience a) understands what they’re doing and b) is rooting for them to succeed, so that “Chamber” is free to move more fluidly, trusting us to readily pick up details.
Each of Rowling’s novels concerns a full school year as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) attends Hogwarts, a magical school in a hidden castle for young witches and wizards. Harry has been famous all his life in the magical world for somehow repelling an attack by uber-evil wizard Lord Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents. Harry has only lately -- at age 11 -- learned of this fame, as his Muggle (that’s non-magical to you and me) aunt and uncle took pains to conceal his heritage from him. Harry is now 12 and considers Hogwarts his home -- not surprisingly, given how abominably he’s treated by his actual relatives.
In “Chamber,” a mopey house elf named Dobby (a splendid CGI character that has much in common movement-wise with “Lord of the Rings”’ Gollum) warns Harry not to return to Hogwarts, creating so much trouble that Harry requires rescue via flying car by his best friend and fellow student wizard Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). Although Harry is overjoyed to be back at school, all is not well -- a fabled secret chamber on the premises turns out to be real, disgorging a monster that menacingly hisses into Harry’s mind. Harry is suspected of having some connection to the mysterious beast, while gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is believed to be at fault in the creature’s rampage. To save his own reputation, Hagrid’s freedom, the lives of fellow students and the continued existence of Hogwarts itself, Harry -- aided by Ron and other best friend Hermione (Emma Watson) -- must figure out what the monster is, how it’s getting around the castle and how to confront it. Meanwhile, life goes on, with lessons in repotting screaming mandrake plants, paralyzing Cornish pixies and playing Quidditch -- a wizarding sport conducted mid-air on broomsticks -- all part of the curriculum.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” provides thrills early and often. The flying car rescue in Chapter 3, which has the vehicle zooming into frame from the viewer’s position, with sound starting in the rears before being picked up in the mains, has the delirious joy of reunion and the kind of shot-out-of-a-cannon energy that accompanies flight in dreams. The beauty of Hogwarts is treated a little more matter-of-factly this time out --we’re free to admire, but as its delights have been established, the tourism is largely saved the for special features on the second disc. The several big, man-eating monsters that turn up in the film’s latter portions are impressively rendered and will be just scary enough for most viewers (very small ones may be terrified), while the investigations of Harry and friends into what’s going on provide a satisfying throughline for the plot.
Like “Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber” is on the episodic side -- many sequences have a slightly stand-alone feel -- but all of it moves with admirable speed. Some things that didn’t fully work last time are much better now. The Quidditch game in Chapter 15, with nice directional whooshes from the flying broomsticks and game balls, is less crucial to the plot than before but is greatly improved in CGI terms, as well as providing more emotional texture by centering on the rivalry between Harry and hateful schoolmate Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Also, the John Williams score, while reiterating themes from the first film, has been much better blended with the rest of the soundtrack, supporting the scenes instead of threatening to swamp them.
Young leads Radcliffe, Watson and Grint are all spot-on. Among the adults, Kenneth Branagh comes close to stealing the show -- which would no doubt please his character -- as new Hogwarts staffer Gilderoy Lockhart, a celebrity constantly seeking opportunities for self-aggrandizement. There’s a great tag scene at the end of the credits (just forward to the 2:40 mark) for an added kick.
The sound in the theatrical release was powerful and it’s exceptional on the DVD. In addition to the much better balance between ambience and score overall, there are a plethora of discrete highlights. Chapter 5 gives us a huge fireplace explosion and a jump shock with a hand grab. In Chapter 10, the catlike screams of the mandrakes are all around us and in Chapter 11, whirring, chittering pixies flit through the mains and rears. Chapter 22 has brief but wonderfully specific whooshing water and Chapter 26 has wickedly convincing surround sounds of scurrying spiders on all sides. When a huge spider goes flying in Chapter 27, it blasts off in the mains and lands loudly in the left rear. Chapter 34 contains the one possible sonic complaint -- the late Richard Harris as Hogwart’s endlessly wise and gentle headmaster Dumbledore speaks so softly that the sound may require a bit of cranking to catch everything he’s saying.
Picture quality is similarly praiseworthy. Colors are bright, firelight (a major light source here) flickers as it’s supposed to without causing frame flicker and even a snowfall doesn’t bleed or artifact.
There are a multitude of special features, most of them on the second disc, though viewers in need of a refresher course in the Potterverse will find a narrated guide to the first film on Disc 1. The Disc 2 menu has most of the contents, apart from the Additional Scenes, slightly hidden (toggling around will highlight everything). The interviews with the younger cast members contain intelligent questions and answers, brief interviews with the adult cast members are charming and there’s a nicely informative piece with writers Rowling and Kloves discussing the book-to-screenplay transition. The set tours are beautifully detailed and there are a good number of games to entertain those who haven’t gotten quite enough “Potter” just from watching the movie.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” at its end proves not only faithful to the story, characters and tone of its source, but it also turns out to capably reproduce the feeling that we get on concluding the reading of a beloved book -- we feel as though we’ve been somewhere enchanting that we’d like to revisit. The DVD release enhances the experience.