Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, Bonnie Wright, Shirley Henderson, Christian Coulson, David Bradley, Julia Walters, Mark Williams, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Richard Harris
Plot: Harry (Radcliffe) is warned about a secret plot to kill him at Hogwarts, something that seems to be true, when the Chamber of Secrets is opened and students begin getting attacked by something in the shadows…
The movies of the Harry Potter world are always going to be held back by one massive flaw. The books will always be better. There is far too much to cram into a movie and even when Chamber of Secrets threatens to spill into the three hour mark, there is still so much that is missed or under-cooked. Saying that, Chamber of Secrets copes far better than the Philosopher’s Stone ever did, helped by the fact that the magic world has been fully explained and Columbus is allowed to plough right into the crux of his story without wasting time on exposition. Columbus decides the only way to move forward is to assume we have all seen the first movie and just gets right back into the story. Yes, there are a few bumps at the start, the mandatory Dursley scene rushed, so we can get to the good stuff early, but as soon as the movie settles down into Hogwarts, we are in for a fantastic children’s experience.
Director Columbus continues his trend of perfect casting with two amazing decisions. Kenneth Branagh might only get the one movie, but he really brings this story to life. He captures the very essence of the flamboyant and self-obsessed Gilderoy Lockhart, taking the best lines in the books and delivering them with the perfection and charisma that only Branagh can do. Whenever he is on-screen, a smile creeps onto your face. The other on-the-nose casting choice is one of my favourite British actors grabbing the place of one of the more interesting villains in the series. Jason Isaacs is a spitting image for Draco’s malevolent father, Lucius. The later movies don’t really have enough time for the character, so Isaacs puts in his best effort to make his villain memorable with this one. He drawls his lines with an oily malice, his steely eyes unwavering with their contempt for the other characters. He is a fine addition to the movies. Of course, the old cast hardly are to be forgotten here. It is a shame that Alan Rickman’s show-stealing Snape is reduced to a bit part, showing up for a few good scenes and claiming the best lines where he can. However, he still makes an impression which shows you just how incredible he is in the role. Richard Harris’s Dumbledore and Coltrane’s Hagrid have a better time of it, even if a late act plot twist takes them out of the plot. Hagrid could be one of Coltrane’s best performances, so it is nice to see the character done justice, one of the surprisingly loveable sides of the movies. And then there are the child actors that are as good as ever. I always remember disliking Radcliffe in the final few movies, so I was surprised to see him act so well here, at a young age. He hits all the right lines and makes for a fine hero to follow, brave, selfless and sharp. He is still struggling to keep up with Rupert Grint however, who steals every scene from his two child co-stars, sometimes with a hoarse voice at the mention of spiders, or sometimes, even with a simple look of confusion.
I always feel a little sorry for the Harry Potter films in the sense that people only ever seem to discuss what they miss. There is little discussion on what they managed to fit in. While certain characters and scenes are trimmed down to the minimum, Columbus nails the factors he manages to squeeze into proceedings. Yes, these movies are packed, but the benefit to that is the fact we keep on discovering new things to appreciate about the films with every watch. There are plenty of small details that Columbus has added that are difficult to pick up on, as the story ploughs forward. Small cuts that reveal how the villain managed to get his evil plot started. Filch’s reunion with his cat in the background of the last scene. Has anyone noticed how sassy Hedwig is before?! Looking back, I realised how many scenes are actually really well done. Columbus sticks close to comedy to keep his movie alive when the middle act begins to show its extended running time. A gag with Crabbe, Goyle and two floating cupcakes could steal the laugh of the movie, made better when Harry and Ron (in disguise) follow up that gag with some amusing interactions with Malfoy. The set-pieces are just as whimsical as ever, Columbus making sure that he captures the magic of the books. A flying car is a tricky thing to get right, without looking silly, and while there are plotholes abound, as Harry and Ron ride a flying car through London, it does make for an action-packed watch. Even better is a venture into the Forbidden Forest, which brings the two characters face-to-face with one monster that has me in shivers every time. I never expected to come to Potter for the horror factor, but Aragog will remain in my nightmares for a few weeks yet.
But I believe the main reason The Chamber of Secrets isn’t as all-over-the-place as The Philosopher’s Stone is simply because it feels more grounded. There is a better structure to the second movie. As soon as we have spent twenty minutes in Hogwarts, the Chamber of Secrets introduces its big bad. A mysterious creature stalking the school at night and petrifying anyone that dares cross its path. So, the Chamber of Secrets becomes a monster movie – that is absolutely fine by me. There is fun to be had in the mystery as the three kids try to solve what is hunting the students of Hogwarts and who is behind the opening of the Chamber of Secrets. Readers of the book might be bored of the trimmed mystery – of course, it is more in-depth in the books – but they are robbing themselves of a clever, little story. The clues are all there and the twist is a good one, something J.K Rowling excels at. It also helps that this monster angle allows the Chamber of Secrets to have a much better final showdown. With the last movie, the fight at the end felt mandatory, like it was something Rowling had to include. As Harry finally faces off against the monster in the Chamber of Secrets, it packs a punch, gripping until the final swing of a sword. These movies are about to get very busy and complicated, so I find myself appreciating the simplicity of Harry Potter tracking down a infamous monster. One of the better Potters.
Final Verdict: Now the opening exposition is done and dusted, Columbus is allowed to take us on a much more entertaining adventure. For a two and a half hour movie, Chamber of Secrets rarely misses a mark.