While “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” may slavishly adhere to its source novel nearly as much as its predecessor did, it is on every count a better movie than last year’s first film installment in the telling of the story of a young wizard’s startling education. Darker and more dramatic, this account of Harry’s troubled second year at Hogwarts may be a bit overlong and unmodulated in pacing, but it possesses a confidence and intermittent flair that begin to give it a life of its own apart of the literary franchise, something the initial picture never achieved. With Pottermania perhaps having cooled over the course of a year from the heat level of a burning furnace to that of a happily bubbling cauldron, it can’t be expected that “Chamber of Secrets” will hit the dizzying commercial heights of “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which at $967 million total gross ($317.6 million from the U.S.) stands as the No. 2 worldwide B.O. hit of all time. But its mammoth success remains a foregone conclusion.
Just as author J.K. Rowling assumed a certain reader knowledge in her second book (published in 1999), so do returning director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves rightly presume to pare exposition down to the minimum this time out (it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this who hasn’t caught the original). So it’s only a matter of about 20 minutes until Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who has endured a dispiriting summer as a virtual prisoner at the suburban home of his dreadfully conventional uncle and aunt, is off again to Hogwarts to resume his study of witchcraft and wizardry.
Happily, a good part of the buildup is spent back at Diagon Alley, where Harry first encounters Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, so ideally cast you’d think Rowling wrote the character with him in mind). The preening author of the autobiography “Magical Me,” Lockhart is joining the Hogwarts faculty as teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts. Also entering the stage for the first time is Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), the blond-tressed, evil-oozing father of Harry’s school archrival, Draco.
Mysteriously prevented from passing through the barrier to platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross station, Harry and his best friend, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), are forced to travel by car — Ron’s dad’s flying Ford Anglia, to be specific — which lands the boys safely on the school grounds, but none too smoothly in the mighty branches of an ancient tree that takes great offense at the intrusion.
Although Harry’s voice has dropped an octave or so since the first year, he’s not really a teenager yet; all the same, there is a new ardor in his excitement over reuniting with Hermione (Emma Watson), the top student in their class. Aptly, Harry, Ron and Hermione seem more truly and enthusiastically like best friends and co-conspirators this time around; a little self-consciousness is evident, and the young leading thesps indulge in moments of spontaneity that reassuringly suggest they now feel more at home in their roles.
Although Hogwarts is still dominated by the same figures –headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and Hagrid the Giant (Robbie Coltrane) — and classes begin promisingly with Lockhart and the new professor of Herbology, Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), who performs a particularly amusing demonstration of the proper method of topping mandrakes, all is not well. Harry starts hearing a malevolent voice of unknown origin urging him to kill, and a pet cat is found hanging in a hallway.
These and subsequent events, in which students are found “petrified,” lead to speculation about Hogwarts’ legendary Chamber of Secrets, which is thought to have been reopened. Professor McGonagall tells her charges such a chamber, the alleged home of a terrifying monster, has never been found, which only encourages Harry, Ron and Hermione to dig into its mysteries.
Conflict hinges on the supposition that whoever opened the chamber must be the descendent of Salazar Slytherin, the renegade co-founder of Hogwarts who insisted only pure-blooded wizards and witches should be permitted at the school. Suspicion naturally falls upon Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose father is ardently committed to ridding the institution of “Muggles,” or the children of normal human beings; to this end, Hermione begins preparing an exotic potion to enable her and her two friends to interrogate Draco on the subject.
But the possibility cannot be ignored that, in the manner of “Star Wars'” Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter himself is the unknowing descendent of the most accomplished and evil wizard on the books. Certainly others think so; Harry conveniently turns up wherever an unseemly incident occurs, and he surprises even himself by being a Parselmouth, someone able to converse with a snake.
In a nicely rendered sepia sequence, Harry learns a good deal from the “interactive” diary of a long-ago student named Tom Riddle, whose exploits in the chamber reveal the involvement of Hagrid and Dumbledore and the portentous escape of a spider. When Hermione becomes petrified and is removed to hospital, and the school’s very existence becomes threatened by all the disturbances, Harry and Ron undertake a visit to Hagrid’s, then to a spider-infested forest, to crack the puzzle.
Ultimately, however, Harry must enter the chamber himself and sword in hand, Siegfried-style, confront the beast. The nocturnal spider sequence will spawn many a childhood nightmare, to be sure, but the climactic serpent battle packs genuine tension; differentiating between this PG-rated action and that in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” which earned a PG-13, is an exercise in hair-splitting. In any event, parents might want to think twice about taking genuine small fry along to “Chamber of Secrets.”
With the newfound confidence shown by Columbus and the continued shrewd stewardship of producer David Heyman, improvements over the first film are to be found in all departments. Cinematographer Roger Pratt (“Batman,” “The End of the Affair”), taking over from John Seale, whose strength always has been location lensing rather than studio lighting, has Columbus moving the camera much more than before, which gives the film increased momentum and visual energy; greater contrasts between light and shadow add a darker tone.
Production designer Stuart Craig, whose splendid work was perhaps the felicitous highlight of “Sorcerer’s Stone,” adds to his accomplishment here with superb creations for Dumbledore’s office, the spider’s lair and the massive chamber itself. New costume designer Lindy Hemming (“Topsy Turvy”) has added to the imaginative costumes established by Judianna Makovsky with witty creations for the showy Lockhart and the sinister Lucius, among others. Even the new Quidditch match is better achieved than the blandly computerized-looking counterpart the first time out.
The greatest relief of all: The volume and aggressiveness of John Williams’ calamitous score for the original has been reduced several times over, to the point where the musical accompaniment, which still remains more ever-present than absolutely necessary, nonetheless functions in a properly supportive and helpful manner.
Near-epic running time, which filmmakers might rationalize as necessary to accommodate all the essential incidents of the novel, might prove wearying to some, but won’t be a barrier; at 161 minutes, pic is nine minutes longer than “Sorcerer’s Stone,” although final credits run a full 10 minutes. At the end of them is a very short filmed coda revealing the humorous fate of one of the principals.
A more muscular filmmaker might have made the film seem to pass more quickly via imaginative pacing — Columbus gives every scene equal weight and never varies the tempo — but pic is not likely to induce active squirming despite the length. However, if Kloves’ scripts are to remain as all-inclusively faithful to the novels as the first two have been, one has to begin worrying about the running
times of the forthcoming productions, given the massively expanding length of the books.
In addition to the welcome contributions of series newcomers Branagh, Margolyes and Isaacs, film features a commanding turn by Christian Coulson as the mysterious Tom Riddle. Rather less enchanting is a CGI creature named Dobby, the elfin servant of Lucius who at intervals imparts crucial information to Harry but, in the way he annoyingly prattles on and on, threatens to become the Jar Jar Binks of the Potter series. By contrast, some of the other creatures, notably the mandrakes and the serpentine Basilisk, are splendidly realized.
While the late Richard Harris plays a much more significant role than he did in the first entry and seizes opportunities to inject whimsy when possible, it must be said that he looks none too well here: The voice is weak, the skin noticeably pale even with all the makeup.
For the next series entry, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which begins production next spring and therefore won’t be ready for holiday release a year hence, Alfonso Cuaron will assume the directorial reins from Columbus, who will remain as exec producer. It’s a prospect that has fans curious already as to the different inflections the talented Mexican helmer might bring to this very British franchise. In the meantime, the series has already taken a step in the right direction.