December 8, 2002 -- "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is one of those rare sequels that is as good as the original movie. Based on the beloved children's book written by J.K. Rowling, this film successfully reunites all the main characters from the first film and adds a few new ones.
Daniel Radcliffe reprises his role as the title character, one of many actors returning for this sequel. This series is notable for its ability to attract top-notch acting talent such as Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall) and the late Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore). This film adds another great actor from that seemingly inexhaustible pool of English Shakespearean stage talent, Kenneth Branagh, who does a delightful comic turn as the vain wizard Gilderoy Lockhart. The child actors are also up to the challenge, led by Emma Watson as Hermione Granger and the red-haired, rubber-faced Rupert Grint, playing Hogwarts student Ron Weasley. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy and Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy are both quite menacing.
The story begins much like the first with Harry back in the world of the Muggles (non-magicians), waiting to return to the Hogwarts school to learn more about wizardry. In the world of the Muggles, Harry is an embarrassment to his family, but in the world of magic, he is a famous wizard and respected by many. There is a lot of potential for character-building because of this duality, but this is barely touched upon in the film. The world of the Muggles vanishes quickly into the background. As in the first film, there is evil at Hogwarts that must be overcome. This evil resides in a secret chamber within the school itself. One of the interesting things about Hogwarts is that it is not a bastion against evil, but rather it is much like the real world in that evil and good are recognized as two faces of the same coin. Unlike the first film, there is little explanation about the nature of this peculiar universe being depicted. It is assumed you have read the books or have seen the first film, where all the basics were explained and all of the major characters were introduced.
The film has even more visual effects work than the first film, including a very exciting Quiddich match (a ridiculously dangerous game that makes stock car racing look sedate by comparison) featuring a rogue Bludger. There is also good effects work in another scene involving a bunch of large spiders. The story is involving with plenty of twists and turns and a suitable showdown with the bad guy. The story introduces elements of racism in the form of the battle between Hogwart factions promoting wizards of pure blood, versus those who would admit Muggle-born youths with magical abilities. The philosophical underpinnings of the argument are a bit shaky however, since the story does heavily promote the idea of inherited ability over the pursuit of knowledge and training. Potter, for instance, is not as knowledgeable about magical spells as Hermione Granger, but his inherited abilities trump her hard work and study.
The film is largely an enjoyable adventurous romp. It is very entertaining. As to whether or not it is as slavishly devoted to reproducing the book as the first film, I don't know. I read the book before seeing the first film and I wasn't about to make that mistake again. It spoils the enjoyment of the film if you know every single line of dialogue and every plot turn before you see it on the screen for the first time. For those of you who don't mind knowing everything in advance, fine, but it is not for me. I enjoyed this film more than the first one mainly because I did not know everything in advance. My Online Film Critics Society colleague Harvey O'Brien has even raised the question is it a film or just an illustrated book? Harvey feels that the films are so tied to the books in this series that the two films have yet to achieve their own identity or any real level of uniquely cinematic expression. The debate in film critics circles will continue for years over the struggle between cinema and books. As for me, I am not willing to participate in this particular struggle. I'll stick to the films and avoid the Harry Potter books from now on. Doing both is redundant. This film rates a B.
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