NOW PLAYING: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Posted: Monday, November 18, 2002

Potter fans rejoice; Chamber of Secrets is a great time at the movies. But was there really any question? Since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the smash hit of last year, a successful sequel has been a foregone conclusion. Sometimes these expectations can be the kiss of death (see, or rather, don't see Men in Black II) but the second installation of Harry Potter meets them head on, and embraces them.

One reason for this, I think, is that no one is looking at any of these movies as stand-alone products. While this, too, can sometimes be an issue, for these films it is an asset. The Harry Potter movies are part of a greater whole, so disappointments are softened with the knowledge that there is more right around the bend. Potter is not unique in this trend. In fact, the first decade of the new millennium may come to be known, in Hollywood, as the Era of the Franchise. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix; each of these highly successful series have something that mere sequels do not: a highly developed, much-adored mythology. I believe that there is no question that all of the entries in each of these franchises will be successful. Sure, there will be debate as to which movie was better, which actor did the best job (as we saw with the tragic loss of Richard Harris, even an adored mythology is not enough to truly immortalize the players), and even which director was truest to form. However, unlike the unfortunate Star Wars saga, which are constantly, and unfairly, judged by the harsh light of their decades-old predecessors, these films will keep their fan base intact for the simple fact that they are planned and, in some cases, executed in one fell swoop. These are truly continuing visions rather than the crass Hollywood norm of "well, that movie made money, let's crank out another."

And continue the vision does. Chamber of Secrets opens with Harry back home with his magic-hating aunt and uncle, confined to a bedroom and out of contact with his dearest friends. Suddenly, there at the window, is an old and beat-up, yet flying Ford come to rescue him. It's the Weasley boys, and Harry is off on another adventure. This is his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and all the old familiar faces have returned, from the odious Draco Malfoy to the courageous whiz kid Hermione Granger. The wonderful thing about a series such as this, is that actors don't mind signing on for another round, and as a result all of the old players are back, from the top of the heap with Daniel Radcliff returning as Harry, to tiny bit parts such as Oliver Wood, the Quidditch captain. All the old locations are here as well, without even a glimmer of a change. The Forbidden Forest, Hagrid's house, and the Castle itself, all reintroduced with perfect clarity. It's almost as if we never left.

Which brings me to the few, and mostly unavoidable, shortcomings present in a film project as large and encompassing as this one. Things seem so familiar, that there is little in the way of shock or joyful surprise. Remember the way you felt when you first saw Hogwarts Castle; how amazed and pleased you were, especially if you are a fan of the books. Remember how dead-on Robbie Coltrane's performance as the oversized Hagrid was, or how beautifully Richard Harris created the great wizard Dumbledore. There is very little of that sort of amazement in this film. Oh, sure, it's fun, but it's not nearly as magical or surprising. There are, of course, some new additions to the mythos that shine brightly; Kenneth Branagh is perfect as the vain professor Gilderoy Lockhart, for example. Aragog the spider and Fawkes the phoenix are both frighteningly and beautifully realized, and the digital character of Dobby the house-elf is a marvel, but they are too few and far between to buoy the entire production.

I do not, however, wish to imply that this movie is not worth your money or your time (and you better have lots of the latter on hand - 2 hours 45 minutes). On the contrary, I think every fan of the books, and every fan of fantasy should experience this film. It is enjoyable, a little frightening, and incredibly faithful to it's source material. In fact, the Harry Potter films, to date, have been the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen. It is amazing what can be achieved when a director/writer/producer is not second guessing every decision, every action, every line of dialogue. It's all right there, written out in plain and beautifully phrased English. Director Chris Columbus and his team get it. They understand that you don't have to add your own stamp to everything; that it's ok to simply pass the story along. So get out and go, join the joyous crowds (I'm sure you won't need much convincing), and if it all seems a little familiar, just settle in and enjoy; it's going to be a long, smooth ride. Grade: A-

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is rated PG for cartoon action and a few scares.

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