Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [retro review]

“Why does it have to be ‘follow the spiders’? Why can’t it be ‘follow the butterflies’?”

The Scoop: 2002 PG, directed by Chris Columbus and starring Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh and Richard Harris

Tagline: The Chamber of Secrets has been opened…

Summary Capsule: We’re back for year two. Harry Potter, plus snakes, Kenneth Branagh, and a little redhaired girl. It looks like a box of chocolates come to life.

PoolMan’s Rating: I don’t care how many spiders there were, dear, we’re sleeping with the light OFF!

PoolMan’s Review: Well, if there’s anybody left in the world who hasn’t either read the Harry Potter books or seen the Harry Potter movies, I’m pretty sure they’re green, misshapen creatures with a penchant for blood and a dislike for English accents. If The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone didn’t cement everyone’s favourite young wizard into the mass consciousness of this little blue-green planet of ours, The Chamber of Secrets surely will.

A little personal history may be in order, here. My introduction to Harry Potter was the first movie. I had never read the books at all, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the series definitely had the legs to become a new favourite. I have since read the first book, and am nearly finished the second. As movies, these stories stand up almost as beautifully as the books. Finally we have a new, fresh successor to Star Wars and Star Trek that caters to a younger crowd of geeks, without dumbing down a thing. That’s really key. Where Lord of the Rings is also destined to become the Next Big Thing alongside Potter, LotR is distinctly more adult oriented, whereas the world of Hogwarts is clearly designed to appeal to kids of all ages, even the adult variety, letting everyone have a chance to grow up with it.

Bear in mind that this movie is a LOT darker than the first one, in perfect keeping with the tone of the books. Harry’s return for his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is nowhere near as rosy as his introduction to it. After nearly not making it to the school at all, Harry finds the school under attack from a mysterious foe that leaves behind paralyzed bodies, scurrying spiders, and bloody handwriting on the walls. Things get progressively worse as Harry realizes he has unique talents that strongly suggest he is the successor of the dark wizard Salazar Slytherin, and may be indirectly responsible for the attacks. The school teeters on the brink of shutting down forever as more victims surface, and it’s up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione to once again save the day.

As I mentioned, this flick is dark. There are creatures, environments, and situations that make the first movie look like a trip to Kindergarten. It’s fitting that the movie was given a PG rating, parents may want to strongly consider whether it’s a good idea to expose their five year old to animals clawing each others’ eyes out, vicious snakes, imposingly dark adult characters, and a seemingly endless sea of giant spiders. Seriously, this merits discussion all on its own. My girlfriend is a fanatic Potter fan, but she’s also seriously arachnaphobic, and had to watch a few minutes between fingers, or not at all. I heard more screaming from the crowd in this movie than in quite a while that was made for younger viewers. One of the friends I went with complained that she thought the Quidditch pitch was coloured far too brightly. I scoffed at first, but it led me to think that perhaps it was intentional, to inject a little life and brightness into the film wherever possible.

Thankfully, they did a good job of the balancing act. Kenneth Branagh’s introduction to the cast as the flamboyant Gilderoy Lockhart was brilliant, as the audience is treated to many laughs at his expense. The rest of the cast is wonderful as well. You get the feeling Daniel Radcliffe has finally gotten a chance to act here, and the support around him grows alongside. Ron and Hermione provide some great moments, and Dobby the house elf (here in quite convincing CGI) provides a few laughs as he beats himself with whatever hard object is handy (and elicits a few gasps from the audience when he shows off his bandaged hands, which he attributes to ironing himself as atonement for an action he committed). I’d be remiss to not mention Alan Rickman’s underused turn as Snape. The man was just born to play the potions teacher, he’s just great. The inclusion of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy is also another distinctly good choice in bad guy (though the screen presence of Tom Riddle did distinctly little for me). One is a little sad to see the final work of the recently deceased Richard Harris as Dumbledore, but what a role to be remembered in.

There’s not a lot of debate that the Chamber of Secrets is a far more engaging and action packed movie than the first, and most everyone I know who’s seen it seems to like it a lot better. Personally, I’m glad they’re through the endless exposition that was so necessary but so repetitive in the last one. If I heard the phrase “I know what THAT is!” or “I read about that in…” one more time, I might have started throwing my gummi bears at the screen. And you know how much I love my gummi bears. No, here the introduction of the important magical elements is more subtle, told through elements like the Weasleys’ house and classes that felt more like real lessons than knowing nudges at the audience. Well done.

Not all is well, however, with young Harry’s franchise. Justin’s observations from the first movie carry over into this one; if you’re expecting deep character development, you’ll be disappointed. The only thing that’s changed about the kids is their breaking voices. Fitting so much detail and story into 2 hours and 41 minutes is a feat, but at the expense of real character evolution, and the ending zips by so quick your head will spin. But at least there’s a true climax, fraught with danger and risk this time out, something lacking from Philosopher’s Stone (sorry, Sorcerer’s Stone, if you live in the US. You guys DO know you’re alone on that, right? I still don’t get why that is).

Let’s end this on a high note, however. Just like the books, the Harry Potter movies are clearly aimed at children with the intent of letting have a story they can sink their teeth into, without dumbing it down or making it too safe. There’s magic in this series, it’s pretty easy to see. If you need proof, when was the last time you sat through a nearly three hour movie packed to the exits with children and they actually behaved?

Yeah, I thought so.

Andie’s Rating: Okay, so I now have a new crush. On Draco Malfoy. I need help.

Andie’s Review: Oh my. Chamber of Secrets was so much better than I imagined it would be I cannot even believe it. It was amazing. So much better than Sorcerer’s Stone that I am now just chomping at the bit to see the movie version of Prisoner of Azkaban. I think the movies are just going to get better and better as they go along.

First of all, the cast is, again, superb. Richard Harris (rest in peace) is wonderful and Maggie Smith is delightful and Alan Rickman is Snape-ish as ever. The three main kids, Harry, Ron and Hermione, have all matured nicely since the first movie and their characters were really well-fleshed out this time. (They’re all gonna be lookers in a few years, I tell ya what.) But my absolute favourites in the movie are the three bad guys and Gilderoy Lockhart.

Tom Pelton, the actor who plays Draco Malfoy, is just hot as can be in this movie. He’s so deliciously mean to Harry and Co. that I love him. I think I shall have to start calling this the Spike Syndrome. He’s a bad boy with bleached blonde hair that I’m totally hot for. Speaking of which, his dad ain’t too shabby either. I thought the casting of Lucius Malfoy was perfect. Same goes for Tom Riddle, I loved the guy playing him. Last but not least: Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. I can’t imagine anyone else playing him. He was so delightfully smarmy that I couldn’t wait to hear what funny nonsense he’d say next.

Secondly, the special effects were quite a step up from the first movie. The Quidditch match looked wonderful, it left me breathless. I can’t wait for the Quidditch match in Prisoner of Azkaban when the Dementors show up. Woo and hoo. But anyway… Thirdly, the humour. There were so many genuine laughs in this movie that I wasn’t expecting because it is considerably darker than the first book. Ron and Gilderoy were especially funny, I just adored them. And Mrs. Weasley really commanded every scene she was in, she was hilarious. I also really liked the funny moments that came from the little budding romances between Harry & Ginny Weasley and Ron & Hermione. Those relationships should be really fun to watch grow.

And finally, the darkness of it all great. The bad guy was much scarier in this movie than the first and the final show-down was far superior (with the exception of the Wizard’s chess game). I thought the Basilisk was very, very creepy.

The only complaints I had was that they left out the students really turning their backs to Harry. The Justin guy who thinks Harry sets the snake him and is later petrified was hardly a character. They also did little with Colin Creevey and I always thought he was adorable. I also thought Moaning Myrtle was horribly miscast. She’s played by this 36 year old woman from Bridget Jones’ Diary. What is up with that? She’s supposed be like 15 and I always imagined her as a heavier girl. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me.

Overall, Chamber of Secrets is definitely worth seeing in the theater. I think it far surpasses the first Harry Potter movie and does a really excellent job of making a great movie out of my least favorite book of the series. I am eagerly awaiting the next two movies and the fifth book. So RUN, DON’T WALK to go see Chamber of Secrets.

Justin’s Rating: Basilisk eggs make the best omelettes!

Justin’s Review: So sort of wanting to see this movie before the Hordes of Babylon (and also, school children) converged on the movie theaters, I took in the first showing on the opening day, well before any invasion. Precisely thirty minutes into the film, all — and I do mean all — of the power went off, leaving us in some sort of comforting and smothering darkness. To assuage our fears, a speaker voice came on to inform us that a rather large transformer near the theater was on fire, and we were to evacuate immediately. True story. So the imps of irony struck again, and I had to see this for a second time the next day, amid a pack of wizard-attired kids. I so love my life.

Apparently, the numskulls at Warner Brothers refused to accept my script notes for Wood The Quidditch Player and the Chamber of Secrets, because scarcely a suggestion I gave them made it into the film. That might be due to Chris Columbus’ insatiable appetite for bullying first graders for their lunch money, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the same problems from the first semi-crappy Harry Potter flick made it into here. Wood, clearly the single best character in the history of film (and yes, I’m including anything John Wayne and Pamela Lee played in that statement), did not receive top billing. Again. I’m sorry, but when you have a choice between a guy who can act and express — whaddya call them — emotions, and one-note clownish pre-teen tots, I don’t have to think long and hard about anything. All Wood, all the time.

Yet again were Fred and George (the two funniest characters in the books) given virtually no lines. Same goes for Monty Python graduate John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick. Movie Harry is still a lot more full of himself than the emotionally challenged Book Harry, culminating in a scene where an evil character says that “I guess you’ll always be there to save the day” and Harry — no, not Bruce Willis — says, “Yeah, I will be.” I mean, what height of Zeus’ hubris is that? Harry, you’ve got a keen scar and a nice wand, but that doesn’t make you anything more than an eighth grader who’s flunking algebra.

Fortunately, I’m pleased to report that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is now and always has been 100% spider-free. I scanned, long and hard, for any mention of an arachnid, but there was none to be found. Not even in the eaves. So if you have a crippling fear of eight legged freaks, this film is the perfect refuge for you.

In truth, this was a shade better than the first flick, and had moments were the children’s painful underacting was counterbalanced by some fine performances and plot developments. Still, there’s a patootey-load to nitpick about what they included, what they left out from the book (who thought it was a good idea to leave out Peeves, the mischievous ghost?), and whether Kenneth Branflakes is considered handsome even by British standards. It’s definitely a relief to know that Chris Columbus is stepping down from his blitzkrieg of sappy terror in order to let another director have a chance to botch what few happy memories I have left from this book series.

Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m too harsh. Perhaps you’re my dog, in which case you’re thinking that you’re hungry. You’re always hungry! But in my defense, I must say that I would’ve been kinder had not the movie ended with that most tired and well-worn cliché of cinema: the slow clap. Clap. Clap. Clap clap clap clapclapclapclap. And it didn’t really even make any sense why they had it in there! Why don’t I ever get slow claps? Why is the world so unjust?

DnaError’s Rating: Pointless Potter Puffery

DnaError’s Review: When a mandrake is pulled from the ground, it emits a scream so loud and painful, that instant death awaits anyone who ears them. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a lot like that. It’s 3 hours of painful wincing and covering your ears.

Before getting into the movie, I need someone to explain this whole wizard world to me. The movie doesn’t seem content to give us a reason WHY wizards exist, or WHY they educate people at all. Why are they hidden, it wouldn’t be hard to operate in the open, and they could make a real butt load of money? Why the dirty names for non-wizards? If Hermione’s parents are both non-magical, then that implies that wizardry isn’t genetic.

Still, any levelheaded explanation of the whole wizard gestalt doesn’t change that Harry Potter is a bad character. He’s a milquetoast, a soup, a bespeckled, nobbyheaded nebbish who does nothing throughout the entire movie. Something happens, he reacts. Harry does nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, to win his way and defeat E-vil. Even his snake-talking powers are inborn. For a magical world of wizardry and potions, the movie is shockingly boring.

But Harry Potter is worse than dull, it cheats. The entire meandering plot structure is a house of cards, dependent on conscience, contrivance, and unbelievable luck. And, before you can say “dues ex machine!” every complication is quickly tied up through a bizarre series of magically appearing swords and convenient birds. They’ve shot themselves in the foot with Chekhov’s gun. It’s insulting to be expected to swallow this tripe. If the hordes of older Harry Potterites want keep saying how wonderfully exciting their devotee is, they are going to have to stop letting these movies be made.

Alex’s Rating: Sometimes I wish I were my innocent 10-year-old self again, instead of the cynical 24-year-old I’ve become.

Alex’s Review: There’s definitely something to be said for the attempt to bring such a beloved (and deservedly so) series of children’s literature to the silver screen; I just think that particular something would have been a lot more positive if in this case it hadn’t been such a blatantly exploitative venture rooted firmly in the terra firma of capitalism. A cash cow was born in J.K. Rowling’s unexpectedly successful works, and I’m afraid Warner Brothers is in only interested in carving up a large cut of prime rib for itself.

What I really wanted to experience with this movie, as well as with its predecessor, was a caring and innovative treatment of the original material, which, at its heart, is a story about the growing pains of a relatively ordinary young boy. What we get is a non-stop rush to cram in all the consecutive plot developments, brought forth with a plethora of special effects on the backdrop of a well-detailed magical environment.

This movie is pulled in two very difficult directions at once: it is trying to be the ultimate vision of the enthralled readers of the Potter chronicles, and at the same time trying to draw in those who have not yet been sucked in by the hype. It’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons against HP:CoS’ seasonal release brother, Lord of the Rings, and believe you me, I’ve been in enough arguments with younger family members over why one is or isn’t better than the other to have settled at calling the argument a comparison of apples and oranges. That said, I still feel that the many undeniable parallels warrant the pursuit of just such a comparison.

[Cue trumpet fanfare and lackey clapping coconuts together as Alex rides off on a chase after the point]

Consider: Both series of books have a strong cult following, and both are highly dependent on a specific series of events to establish the plot, which if deviated from would leave nasty moth-eaten holes in the story. Both take place in imaginary realms removed from what any normal person would (hopefully) distinguish as our reality, but are not merely fantasy movies created mainly to show you how fantastic and magical the world of fantasy and magic is; rather these stories focus believably on the very human struggle between good and evil. It is this very primal and even every-day struggle we as normal (heh heh) people can identify and empathize with, that lends the yummy epic flavoring directors seems to want to be sprinkling heavily on their films nowadays.

This is exactly where the cinematization of LotR soars, and that of Harry Potter falls comparatively flat on its bespectacled, evil-scar-etched face. LotR allows the setting and magical characteristics of Middle Earth to leap forth from the screen in all their grandeur, but at the same time this does not swallow the movie whole. The special effects go hand in hand with the character development, like a pair of sweet toddlers you see on those hand-colored B&W greeting cards. On the other hand you’ve got HP:CoS which plays out like a movie where the final script was handed to the special effects department, and as a result was pared down to nothing more than an excuse to have all the “cool scenes.”

The great thing about the Harry Potter books is that the readers, young and old, really can empathize with this kid who’s suddenly thrust into a new situation where he’s forced to adapt, grow, and hopefully become a better person. Harry is an underdog, the weird outsider given a remarkable chance to prove to the rest of the world that ‘different’ is not necessarily bad. Instead of embracing the given concept, a la LotR, the makers of HP: CoS went straight for the crowd-pleasing jugular and focused on eye-candy and the appeal of big name actors. Sure, the casting is great, (there’s hardly a movie I won’t endure for the sake of watching Alan Rickman), but did they do anything good with it? Not really. Sure, the effects are eye-popping, and Quidditch is very notably depicted more vividly than many a brain could probably envision it, but it’s just a overload of empty calories without solid character development behind it.

I really and truly wanted to love this movie. I did, Honest! But I found myself forcing a laugh at the punch lines, and trying to find validation from others that it was worth liking. I didn’t hate it, that’s for certain, but when you compare it to the book the movie simply has no soul.

 

"I told you to get a normal washing machine, but no, no, you wouldn't listen. It's got to be shaped like a giant stone head, you said."

 

Intermission:

  • Arachnophobes will not like this movie. At all. Likewise people who have a thing about bones.
  • You see a severed, clawed hand in a magic shop. What do you do, huh? What. Do. You. Do?
  • At one point Lockhart stands next to a picture of himself painting a picture of himself. Too surreal.
  • Why would Salazar Slytherin leave little snakes pointing the way to his Chamber of Secrets?

Groovy Dialogue:

Lucius Malfoy: [sarcastically] Let’s just hope that Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.

Harry: Don’t worry. I will be.

Hagrid: If I was looking for stuff… I’d follow the spiders. Yep, that’s all I have to say.

Harry: You heard Hagrid. Follow the spiders.

Ron: Why does it have to be ‘follow the spiders’? Why can’t it be ‘follow the butterflies’?

Dobby: Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts this year.

Dumbledore: Hogwarts is no longer safe. The Chamber of Secrets has been opened.

Mr Weasley: Never trust anything that can think for itself, unless you can see where it keeps its brain.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Louise does Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  2. Pingback: Louise does Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One | Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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