It is not our abilities that tell us what we truly are…it is our choices.
There is a recently held belief that the second installment in a blockbuster franchise generally surpasses the original. This is evidenced by such films as Aliens, Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back. The thought being that the audience has become more familiar with the characters, the writers have learned from previous mistakes, and often times a new director has taken the helm. When Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets made its theatrical debut in the fall of 2002, the overwhelming media buzz fell right in line with expectations—"better than the first!" With its release on DVD, fans now have a chance to re-evaluate their initial impressions. Chamber of Secrets, while a fascinating and impressive piece of filmmaking, has lost the new world magic of the first film and gained a darker, more intriguing edge, which will serve the series well in the long run.
Facts of the Case
Following a thrilling first year at Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has returned to a dismal and demeaning life with the Dursleys. However, as the summer draws to a close, a surprise visitor warns Harry not to return to school as nothing but danger and disaster await him. Before he even has a chance to digest these warnings, the Weasley boys (Rupert Grint, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps) arrive to rescue Harry from his Dursley prison and prepare him for the new school year. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be going Harry's way—a disturbing encounter with Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his father Lucius (Jason Isaacs) in Diagon Alley, missing the Hogwarts Express, and stealing Mr. Weasley's flying car in order to get to school, losing a fight with a Whomping Willow tree, and threatened expulsion by Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) for exposing their powers to Muggles. All this before the school year has even started—and things only get worse from here. Along with new faculty and friends, it appears the new year has brought fourth an old evil. The mysterious Heir of Slytherin has arrived at Hogwarts and opened the legendary Chamber of Secrets, spelling death for all Mudbloods—students whose parentage is less than pure Wizardry. What's worse, evidence begins to mount and point directly towards Harry. Could he possibly be the heir of Slytherin and not even realize it? What about the new professor of the Dark Arts, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh)? Or even Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), whose past has been shrouded in secret? Worse yet, what if it's Draco Malfoy, whose evil powers have finally come of age? It's up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Emma Watson) to uncover the deception before anyone gets hurt…or killed.
Picking up soon after the end of the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone, director Chris Columbus and his team have settled in and created a much more engaging narrative. Instead of cramming together a series of vignette-like adventures, Chamber flows smoothly through darker, more treacherous waters. Our heroes—Harry, Ron, and Hermione—are no longer children, but rather young adults facing more important questions and challenges. It's easier to identify and confront a known enemy such as Voldemort, but when your greatest foe could be anyone—even yourself—it causes you to question even your strongest beliefs. Screenwriter Steve Kloves does a marvelous job of pulling out the key elements of the novel and giving these characters new places to explore within a familiar world. Unfortunately, it is impossible for anyone to translate the sheer volume of rich, intricate imagery author J.K. Rowling has given us. Yes, certain fans will be disappointed to witness the omission of many a favorite moment. However, Chamber will do nothing to disappoint even the most ardent fans of the book.
As for the question of the day—Is Chamber better than the original? Let me respond first by saying this is a cloying and obtrusive question. Every film should be given a chance to stand apart and be judged on its own merits. Second, the film is not better or worse. It's simply different. Entering this world for the first time, everything from the invitations to Hogwarts and Harry's visit to Diagon Alley to the floating candles of the Great Hall and the first Quidditch match were new and electrifying. Yet at this stage, we now are familiar with this world. The Dursleys are no longer the threat they once were. Hogwarts' moving staircases, living portraits, and resident ghosts have become second nature. Even the competition between houses—both on and off the Quidditch field—has taken a back seat to this year's dire revelations. Like any good story, Chamber holds its own unique charms and stimulating imagery—Dobby the neurotic house elf, life at home with the Weasley family, the attack of the Whomping Willow, the Mandrakes and Cornish Pixies, Ron's unfortunate attempts at spellcasting, our first encounter with the loathsome Lucius Malfoy, the Wizards duel, Hermione's evolving powers, and Harry and Ron's escape from Aragog—just to name a few. What's more, there is an overriding sense of family in this film. From the developing relationship amongst our trio of heroes to the growing bonds between Hogwarts faculty and students, each personal interaction seems to build upon on the previous one, laying the groundwork for what is to come. It will be interesting to see how different Prisoner of Azkaban will be with Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) at the helm, bringing with him a track record of impressive character dramas.
Strong performances fuel Chamber's darker side. No longer impish children, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson earn their acting stripes here. Rupert develops a wonderful sense of comedic timing, Daniel grows in introspection and intensity, and Emma blossoms into a strong positive role model for young women. In addition, Tom Felton (Draco) has mastered the art of chewing scenery, feeding off the devilish influences of Jason Isaacs (Lucius), who oozes malicious malcontent. Kenneth Branagh is perfectly cast as the self-absorbed Professor Lockhart, bringing a much-needed element of levity to an otherwise dark adventure. This time around we are granted more time with the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith (McGonagall) and brief but thoroughly entertaining moments with Mark Williams and Julie Walters (Mr. and Mrs. Weasley). Sadly, this was the final film for Sir Richard Harris (Dumbledore), who passed away shortly before Chamber was released, following a prolonged illness. Michael Gambon (Gosford Park) will assume the role for the remainder of the series. Author J.K. Rowling has an exceptional flair for writing brilliant characters. Paired with some of the best talent in the business, we can look forward to more engaging performances in the films to come.
From a technical perspective, Chamber's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is damn near perfect without a trace of dirt or digital tampering. The special effects become more realistic with each passing film, although the finale of the "rogue bludger" sequence looked like a throwback to the cheesy effects of yesteryear. The color palette beautifully represents a timeless England, with remnants of everything from the dark ages to present day. The film's darker moments, such as the Whomping Willow or Aragog's lair, exhibit tremendous use of deep dark purples, blues, and blacks. The Dolby 5.1 EX audio track will give your system quite a workout. Even the subtlest ambient noises will engulf your viewing room, rumbling the walls on more than a few occasions. Though I'm not quite convinced how much more effective EX is than standard 5.1. The discs' menu design is charming but one wonders why they chose the character of Argus Filch as our mute guide for the bonus features, which are plentiful indeed.
Pay no attention to people who claim these books and films are merely for kids. Chamber's underlying messages confront the evils of racial cleansing and the dire consequences resulting from judgments based on ignorance and misperception. Do yourself a favor and at the very least rent this film—preferably in widescreen. If you are a fan of the series, you have my strongest buy recommendation. Like the original Star Wars trilogy and Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series will continue to fascinate and entertain generations to come. Lucius Malfoy: Let us hope, Mr. Potter, that you will always be around to save the day. Harry: Oh don't worry, I will be.
Director Chris Columbus and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are hereby absolved of any wrong doing, except perhaps for removing several minutes of film which would have enhanced its character development and storyline. Warner Brothers is lauded for putting together a spectacular package worthy of J.K. Rowling's magical world. We applaud Chris Columbus for his work and look forward to the next installment. This court now stands adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• 19 Deleted/Extended Scenes
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.