Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

There’s no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid.

Who better to play a flamboyant, narcissistic, and arrogant newly appointed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart than Sir Kenneth Branagh, a natural scene-stealer and a provider of bright patches in this noticeably darker sequel, one that deals with classism and racism (even enslavement!) but in a way that is still kid-friendly and entertaining? Branagh is not in the picture for long, but the performer proves to be more than capable of making a lasting impression. And although Lockhart may be a snake oil salesman, there is another type of snake in this chapter, one I consider to be enjoyable as a whole but plagued with missed opportunities.

Unlike the predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” directed by Chris Columbus, is more entrenched in its mystery. Notice immediately how plot-driven it is. Once blood is written on Hogwarts’ walls and petrified bodies pile up, Steve Klove’s screenplay launches into an investigatory mode. Nearly every conversation among Harry, Ron, and Hermione is a step toward the discovery of the Chamber of Secrets’ location. It gives the impression that the film is not so much interested in supplying wonderment; it assumes that those who signed up for the follow-up are already invested in the Harry Potter universe. This is a double-edged sword: It is the correct evolutionary step for the franchise but it sheds some of its warm appeal.

I enjoyed this approach, I think. It may not be as inviting as “Sorcerer’s Stone,” but it is more efficient from a storytelling perspective. There is no need to reintroduce, for instance, what goes on inside the Hogwarts Express while students are on their way to start another school year. First-years being sorted into their respective houses—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin—is skipped altogether. (We do, however, learn a bit of background regarding the house’s founders later on, courtesy of Professor McGonagall [Maggie Smith].) I found the movie’s willingness to not repeat itself to be admirable. Even the Dursleys’ bullying, Harry’s adopted family (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Harry Melling), is not as awful this time around. Perhaps it is because a part of them now fears Harry’s sharpened abilities.

Harry and Gilderoy are obvious foils. Harry could have used his fame as The Boy Who Lived to be as ostentatious and ridiculous as Gilderoy but didn’t. In fact, Gilderoy has a habit of grabbing Harry and using the twelve-year-old as a prop to gain even more fame and admirers. (Not to mention book sales.) Gilderoy’s idea of detention is allowing our hero to answer fan mail. Harry is humble with his adventures and triumphs while Gilderoy is an expert in employing smoke and mirrors. This amusing relationship could have been a powerful thesis of this installment. There is a theme regarding seeing but failing to look directly into the eyes. Had the screenplay honed in on the core of these wealth of ideas, “Chamber of Secrets” would have worked on another level.

Still, what’s at offer remains highly watchable, from the duel between the even-tempered Harry and the petulant Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to Harry writing on a mysterious diary which possesses the power not only to answer back but also to transport its owner into specific times in the past. Perhaps most memorable is a trip to the Dark Forest where a giant spider named Aragog resides. Ron and Harry attempting to escape from an ocean of goat-sized spiders is stuff of nightmares. At the same time, these spiders possess a beauty, too. I wanted to take a magnifying glass and examine the hairs on their bodies. Or perhaps to stare into their many eyes. Spiders are such misunderstood creatures. I’m with Hagrid on this one.

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