Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

To be completely honest, I’ve never been able to distinguish this film very well from The Sorcerer’s Stone. To me, they are almost exactly the same film. Yes, the plot, characters and set-pieces are different, but it all feels exactly the same. We do start learning more interesting bits about the history of the world and I do think it does some things better than its predecessor, but I can’t help but notice the sameness of the two films.

This time around, young wizard in training Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to school only to be plagued by a mysterious voice which is related to a number of people who end up mysteriously petrified. Along with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry begins investigating the mysterious events while also struggling for survival as it seems someone at Hogwarts has it out for him.

While the film is, at its core, a rehash: a mystery paralleling the ploys of some malevolent force that intends to kill Harry Potter, the film elevates the story in a couple of ways. The first is that the new characters are delightful. The docile, self-deprecating Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) makes us laugh and cringe while the arrogance and feigned bravery of Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) makes him an entertaining idiot.

The second improvement is that the narrative has more personal weight as the film makes what I always found to be the most compelling attribute of the Harry Potter character: his connection to Voldermort. I think there will always be something dramatically compelling about heroes and villains who share similar traits and the idea that one could easily be the other. Because it makes the struggle of good an evil more than just an external spectacle, but an internal struggle for the protagonist.

Another major area of improvement is the visual effects. While you can still occasionally see how staged these effects are, in a lot of cases they look fantastic and seamlessly blend into the world. While Dobby is nowhere near as good as Gollum from The Two Towers, which came out the same year, he’s still an impressive, fully CGI character. While special effects don’t make the film, they do help a lot of the world moments in the film become more plausible and entertaining, especially the Quidditch match.

What hasn’t improved is the writing. There are still some mind-numbingly stupid lines, the kind of lines that get said in children’s movies because writers assume kids are stupid. I think the average child will be able to divine action of this film without having the players in the film give a commentary of what they are doing as it happens. Still, it cuts back a bit from the previous film, reduced the bad dialogue to a level where it isn’t as heavy, but it still appears frequently enough to be extremely annoying.

And yet as much as I think this film is an improvement on The Sorcerer’s Stone, the ending of the film is so overwrought and overwhelming that I couldn’t help but find it trite. I like the sentiment behind the ending, I think the writing is there, but the way the scene is shot and the absolute ridiculous level the music is taken to makes it an ending that ruins a lot of the dramatic weight that came before that moment.

Still, even with a worse ending, Chamber of Secrets is taking the series in the right direction. It still has a way to go, it still needs to start treating its audience with intelligence, but one can see in even a year the growth and improvement at work. It’s still a childish children’s movie, which is a disappointment given the film is about three kids who are brave and intelligent even amid life-threatening circumstances.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing