..

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
Widescreen

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltraine, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters
Director:  Chris Columbus
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 EX
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  161 Minutes
Release Date:  April 11, 2003

“What can this mean, Albus?”

“It means our students are in great danger.  It is as we feared, Minerva…the Chamber of Secrets has indeed been opened again.”

Film ****

It’s so rare that a sequel manages to surpass its original that when it happens, the praises should be trumpeted loud and long.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets takes a supremely confident step forward, building on the foundation set by the original, and offers up stronger character development, a more smartly constructed storyline, and a world of even more enchantment and mystique.

The film starts off on the eve of another school year at Hogwarts.  Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is still having home problems, but school may not be quite the refuge for him it was a year ago.  An elfin servant named Dobby arrives to warn him not to return to the school, as great danger awaits him.

After a spectacular flying car sequence gets Harry to his destination, he and his old friends Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) find old acquaintances and new, including the pompous professor of protection against dark spells Lockhart (Branagh), who doesn’t turn out to be much of a help when a dark mystery rooted in decades of history at the school begins to unravel.

Hogwarts is bigger and more mysterious than even its most noted professors fully realize, and an old secret resurrects to threaten both the students and the institution itself.  A deadly Chamber of Secrets has been opened…but by who, and why?  As fellow classmates become “petrified” by the appearance of whatever dwells in the Chamber, it’s up to Harry and his friends to unravel the enigma of what happened at Hogwarts some fifty years prior in hopes of stopping the menace from destroying the school and all who dwell in it!

That’s the plot in a few sentences, but it doesn’t begin to hint at what a glorious film this is.  Director Chris Columbus and his talented team have once again created a magical, mysterious world in which to place characters and tell a story, and their canvas is rich and expansive.  Every corner of every frame is filled with remarkable detail and imagination; no bit was spared in bringing author J. K. Rowling’s novel to vivid life.  The world of the film is fantastic, yet believable, for it never missteps or miscues to take you out of the spirit of its wonderful moments.

But for me, as before, the main attraction is the cast of kids, all of whom wear the effects of their maturation process with dignity in their second approach to their characters.  Daniel Radcliffe in particular is evolving into a fine young actor, as he takes to the recreation of one of modern literature’s most popular characters with confidence and understanding.  The more real Harry is to us, the more involved we are in the story, and Mr. Radcliffe never falters.  His costars continue to be an enjoyable presence as well, as Rupert Grint continues to inject Ron with a plucky good heart despite his aversion to danger, and Emma Watson gets to bring more dimension to the amusing spunk of Hermione.  The chemistry between the three is warm and genuine…they make the journey through the film most worthwhile.

Of course, the youngsters continue to be supported by a terrific cast of seasoned pros, from the late great Richard Harris to the eternal Maggie Smith, from the cheeriness of John Cleese and Robbie Coltrane to the edgy decency of Alan Rickman and more.  Kenneth Branagh, the newest veteran edition, seems to be having a wonderful time playing the arrogant but inept Lockhart.

My only real complaint is in yet the emergence of ANOTHER annoying CGI character…in this case, the elfin Dobby, who refers to himself in third person more than Bob Dole and is essentially another off the assembly line that first gave us Jar-Jar Binks.  I can only presume the character was written that way, not having read the books myself but understanding the dedication of cast and crew to preserve Rowling’s text on screen.  Thankfully, his screen time is minimal.  Michael Jacobson appreciated that very much indeed.

That minor quibble aside, this is a film that will absorb and engross an audience from start to finish, regardless of age.  I questioned the running time of the first movie, whether or not it was a good idea for a film mostly aimed at kids to be nearly 2 and a half hours.  This one is even longer, clocking in at 2 and three quarters, but I never felt a minute of the time drag by.  The best stories will keep you riveted for any length of time, while the weaker ones will make 80 minutes seem like an eternity.

I’m grateful for these films.  My generation had pictures like Willy Wonka and The Neverending Story, and every generation has enjoyed The Wizard of Oz…all films of fantasy and enchantment that allow you to spend time in a perfectly realized world where anything could happen, and probably would.  The Harry Potter films are taking this tradition to the next level, and preserving the spirit of pure movie magic for the new millennium.

If The Sorcerer’s Stone proved to cast, crew and audiences alike that it could be done at all, The Chamber of Secrets demonstrated that there was no limit to what COULD be done.  I, for one, will certainly offer a heartfelt “welcome back, Potter” to the next installment.

Video ****

Simply outstanding…very few films are as demanding of DVD’s capabilities as this one is, and even fewer DVDs live up to the challenge.  Chamber of Secrets is a stylistic cornucopia of colors, images, tones and shades.  Every extreme from the gorgeously bright and vivid to the murkiest darkness is represented here with full integrity and clarity.  Detail is never compromised, and that’s crucial, because not many movies are as indulgent in detail as these are.  Ever color renders beautifully, every subtle shade is distinct and clear, no grain or compression to spoil the view.  This is as good as it gets!

Audio ****

Likewise, the 5.1 soundtrack is a multi-layered, action packed treat.  Whether it’s the sounds of flying cars, whomping trees, a more fast paced Quidditch game than ever before, or simply the sound of the dialogue or John Williams’ rich score, this extended Dolby Digital track is full, dynamic, well-balanced and clear, and will keep you in the middle of the events…sometimes, maybe even too close for comfort!

Features ***

As with the original DVD, Chamber of Secrets offers quantity but not quality.  If reading the back of the disc got you excited about the features, actually going through them will be somewhat of a let down.  Disc One of the set boasts cast and crew info, but no talent files…merely a list of who does what.  Trailers for both the first and second Harry Potter films complete the disc.

Disc Two features everything else, but from the start, the DVD frustrates.  You can’t see all the menu options printed out on the screen…you have to move the cursor around to make the selections appear!  Then as you do that, actually finding what you want is somewhat of a quest worthy of Harry, Ron and Hermione. 

There are 19 deleted/extended scenes, most of which are self evident why they were cut or truncated, but for those who can’t get enough of Dobby, there’s extra stuff here.  Interview segments with the students and faculty are included, but most are no more than soundbites.  Better is an interview with author J. K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves…at least there’s some humor and insight into the creative process.

For the kids, there are games and interactive tours…for example, you can test your spellcaster knowledge by identifying the effects of spells cast in the film, or you can tour Dumbledore’s office, the Chamber of Secrets, Lockhart’s class, Diagon Alley and more…in some cases, your knowledge of trivia will help a great deal.  You can even take a look at the process of set design.

DVD ROM extras round out the package.  Overall, it sounds like a lot, but there’s very little material of substance here.  Making matters worse are the extremely lengthy menu screen openings that you can’t skip past and the notably slow response time in making selections.

Summary:

I’m just wild about Harry…Chamber of Secrets is a muscular and confident follow-up to Sorcerer’s Stone, building on its foundation while taking the story, characters, and magical world to new and better heights.  This movie is a spellbinding good time for young and old alike!