harry potter and the chamber of secrets (2002)


director: chris columbus

daniel radcliffe, rupert grint, richard harris, kenneth branaugh

The latest installment in the Harry Potter movie franchise won’t disappoint fans of the first installment, last year’s Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, though it remains to be seen how much damage the relentless release schedule of Chris Columbus’ movie adaptations will hurt the long-term audience for J.K. Rowling’s books.

The movie starts out by hitting the right note, landing poor Harry back in the cruel purgatory of his aunt and uncle’s suburban row house, where he lives out his summer vacation stranded in his room, longing for his second year at Hogwarts to begin. An unexpected visitor - a house-elf named Dobby - suddenly appears to warn him not to go back to Hogwarts, that a conspiracy is in place that threatens his life. Dobby ends up getting Harry locked up, only to be rescued by his best friend Ron, who’s stolen his fathers magic flying Ford Anglia for the purpose.

At well over two hours, it would be difficult to describe every twist and detail in the story’s well-stuffed plot, and pointless besides, as the film’s target audience - young readers of the books - are already familiar with it all. As an uninitiated outsider, the merry escape in the flying Cortina is an appropriate start for what is, ultimately, an unusually atmospheric amusement park ride of a film.

The Chamber of Secrets is supposed to be the first step into “darker” territory that Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry will have to face in future episodes, and it’s fun to imagine how much more gothic and sinister the movies can become with each new generation of digital effects. There is, no doubt, some deep social subtext to be explored in the vision of England being sold by Rowling’s books and Columbus’ films. It’s sad to think of the millions of future tourists to Britain, sure to be disappointed by how little the country resembles the antiquary fantasy they’ve been sold, a circumstance that perhaps only the British Tourist Board regards with unmixed glee.

Except for the late Richard Harris’ Dumbledore and Kenneth Branaugh’s turn as a conceited fraud of a wizard (a role some might regard as somewhat effortless), the stellar Hogwarts faculty get short shrift in this film. Lingering doubts about the ability of Radcliffe and the other young actors to carry the future series are only underscored by a rather more remarkable performance from the entirely digital Dobby.

The film is good fun and entirely thrilling, despite these nagging qualms, and remarkably free of cinematic aftertaste or any trace of strong, lingering imagery. Perhaps this might make it possible for young readers to disregard it when they construct their own, personal adaptations; Rowling can only hope for this blessed outcome, the only hope she has of being the author of a children’s literature classic.