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Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets

We should be another year older and wiser. After all, Harry is. Well, older anyway; he still seems a bit befuddled by all that's happening around him. But even knowing that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is not a perfect film can't stop us from liking it.

Like its predecessor, this movie follows its source pretty closely. Those who haven't read J.K. Rowling's books might have benefited from a more linear storyline. But it's the huge fans that are the bread and butter of this franchise, and for them, any cut from the text is painful.

And so once again director Chris Columbus was faced with a difficult task, trying to rein all this in into a watchable form without betraying fans. Screenwriter Steven Kloves' work follows the book faithfully (and a bit doggedly).

As a result, the movie delivers little tastes of places and people, always leaving us wanting a little more. Rowling (and by proxy, Columbus) has created a world that requires dawdling, easy to do in books but not so easy on film. A visit to the Weasley home promises a lot of wonder, and though crucial to the overall plot, it's over too quickly. From there we whisk away to a seedy Dickensian side of the magic realm, giving a couple of jumps and setting up for unsavory business that never really pays off. We already knew this was a battle between good and evil, and the true evil faces in these movies are worn with far more sophistication than on Knockturn Alley.

Like the Bond movies, a pattern has also already emerged. Grab 'em early with a rousing game of Quidditch (though more rousing this time around), take a visit out into the forbidden forest, and for heavens' sake, make sure that the audience has completely forgotten about the character who will be revealed as a tool of Lord Voldemort. With so many characters, however, you forget so many. You can only eliminate the petrified ones as suspects.

A few welcome differences have come up. This time around, Harry is a far more active hero, and proves that he at least has the potential to be a great wizard rather than just let people say he does.

It's a darker film, too. That visit to the forbidden forest will scare the bejeebers out of a lot of young children and anyone who has a fear of spiders. (Michael Goodson has just logged off of this review.) It had never occurred to me before that it's a good thing that spiders can't actually talk; the giant Aragog is even scarier precisely because he's so reasonable about wanting to eat our heroes.

The Chamber of Secrets plays as fairly as it can with such a huge picture to squeeze into such a little canvas. (Already I demand a Special Platinum Super-Tiger-Dragon Edition DVD with an at least four-hour cut of the film.) And Columbus allows himself to linger over emotional moments without forcing them.

Better, he has more of a sense of play in this world, not keeping the respectful distance he seemed to have in the first Harry Potter film. The often too-facile director more than holds it all together; he occasionally verges on art.

Perhaps inspired by a flashback scene involving a magical diary, the director shoots many scenes as if they belonged in a 1940's film. Steeped in a rich chiaroscuro, the flashback itself pays direct homage to Olivier's Hamlet and Hitchcock's Spellbound. (That may be the most pretentious sentence ever to appear in Fanboy Planet, but it's true.) For those with shorter memories, there's a little bit of The Love Bug, too.

Some actors get short shrift in the film, but we can hope that they have a chance to be more important in later installments. It worked for Julie Walters as Mrs. Weasley in the first film. Here, she makes an indelible impression both in person and as a fabled Howler. John Cleese has about three lines as Nearly Headless Nick, which has just got to pay off later. And once again, there's no poltergeist Peeves; Warner Brothers had better hope Rowling never gives him a major part in the series, because it's too late to insert him now.

Those given room to run, though, make the most of it. Of course the three main kids remain watchable, though Daniel Radcliffe's adolescence may seem jarring. (But it sure makes his moments speaking parseltongue, the snake language, creepier.)

Luckily for Rupert Grint as Ron, being caught in the middle of puberty makes him even funnier. Essentially playing a Lou Costello role, Grint has an amazing sense of timing. And Emma Watson grows into the role of Hermione, though the plot takes her out of the action a little early.

Newcomers Kenneth Branagh and Jason Isaacs command their scenes, though Isaacs dims a little bit in the presence of Richard Harris. As Gilderoy Lockhart, Branagh struts and preens with gusto. Clearly having fun, he shares it with the audience, which allows Columbus to put in an end credits coda not found in the book. See, guys, it can be done. Isaacs provides a new and continuing menace as Lucius Malfoy, father of Harry's archenemy Draco. In Isaacs' hands, it's not a caricature, oozing contempt for the "mudbloods." Alan Rickman has competition.

Yes, there is also a bittersweet edge to this, as Harris' last film. He rasps his way through much of it, but only to make the flashback more believable. Playing two Dumbledores with a fifty year difference, Harris is never less than convincing, forceful, and warm. Whoever takes his place in the series has large shoes to fill. But we already knew that.

And those shoes will be filled. Though flawed, this series will go on, and should go on. Quality (and semi-literary) fun is hard to come by at the movies. Treasure it when you get it.

What's it worth? $8.50

Derek McCaw

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