Welcome back to the Harry Potter Retrospective. Obviously, it’s been awhile since our last excursion into the world of Potter, but I plan on making up for lost time over the next month or so. In the meantime, let’s focus on Potter’s second adventure. After a successful launch of the series, director Chris Colombus returns to Hogwarts for Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, an entry that both opens up the world building of the Potter universe and is incredibly repetitive in terms of what it takes from its predecessor. This is an issue inherent in the source material, given that the basic structure of the novel of the same name follows the beats of Sorcerer’s Stone to a tee. Still, the devotion that Colombus’ previous film had to its novel is exactly what hinders this one. With Sorcerer’s Stone, the use of elaborate set pieces gave us a larger window into the Potterverse. Here, that same structure is used, but the window is often foggy for the sake of set up via either repetition or for an admittedly well staged yet ultimately overbearing special effects set piece. So, the encroaching darkness that dominates the tone of this story does set up that thematic drive for future films, but also depletes the film of much surprise given its similarities to Sorcerer’s Stone structurally. It’s a bit of a conundrum for Chamber of Secrets, feeling like needed exposition with less sugar to help us swallow.
One of the better examples of this is the opening car sequence, which manages to use the audience’s expectations from the first film to hilarious subversion. The entire sequence hinges on how much the audiences are ready to see Harry go back to Hogwarts in the typical fashion, even if the Durselys have set up hinderances to keep him from leaving or even getting word via owls. So… let’s completely subvert expectations by having a junky 20th century car crash through railings. The subversion manages to continue through some well timed moments of slapstick humor to initially indicate how off Hogwarts and the magical world in general is at this point. It’s the best way of initially introducing that unease before things become far more sinister as the mystery plot unravels. Still, even with this darker dressing (sometimes dressing covered in blood), the plot still resembles Sorcerer’s Stone‘s structure beat-for-beat. Dobby’s entrance intruding on the Durselys is this film’s Hogwarts letters, the Tom Riddle mystery its Nicolas Flamel, Aragog its Fluffy and the more obvious connections like the Quidditch game or the ending vague philosophy speechifying by Dumbledore. Chamber of Secrets gives its tremendous supporting cast far less to do, from a brief sneer from Alan Rickman to the clearly sick Richard Harris‘ limited lectures in what would end up being one of his final performances after his death a few months before the film’s release. It’s a shame when the strongest returning supporting performance is Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, who spends most of the film banished for contrived purposes so that the cast can literally slow clap the film to its end credits.
So yeah, there’s an obvious formula in Chamber of Secrets. Of course, future Harry Potter films will obviously have elements that recur or familiar threads. I’ll obviously address those later. That’s not to say that some of these recurring elements aren’t done with some new flair here. I’d argue the Qudditch match scene here is a decent improvement over the one in Sorcerer’s Stone, mainly in terms of focusing on Harry and Malfoy’s own conflict rather than Harry attempting to get through the game. Introducing Tom Riddle here gives more of an authentic face to the threat of Voldemort than the poorly plastered CG face on the back of Quirrell’s head in Sorcerer’s Stone. The Defense Against the Dark Arts gag is firmly established here, in which the teacher who takes the position ends up being uncovered as something more sinister and disposed of in a fitting fashion. Kenneth Branagh takes Ian Hart’s place for this entry, showing off his usual bombast with enough ego to support his ultimate selfish turn. In terms of new elements, the biggest are probably the lovable and insanely large Weasley family that starts its evolution as Harry’s surrogate family in the world of magic, from the motherly Julie “Molly Weasley” Walters to his future love insterest Bonnie “Ginny Weasley” Wright. There’s also the concept of Mudbloods, which feeds into the prejudices of the rather Aryan inspired Malfoy clan (including newcomer to the franchise Jason Isaacs that gives his co-star Rickman a run for his money in terms of still iciness) and Hermione’s drive to strive in the world of magic, as a way of proving that prejudice wrong.
That head strong motivation manages to create a genuine reason for splitting up our trio of Harry, Hermione & Ron. It’s their literal sophomore slump, often trying and failing to live up to the expectations set out for them as they get deeper into this mystery. Hermione goes in over her head trying to use magic against it, Ron continues to disappoint in his magic studies and behavior with elements like the car & Harry becomes so enraptured in the mystery of Tom Riddle to see the clear danger in front of him. Yet, it still follows the basic beats that enables Harry to directly face a threat on his own from Sorcerer’s Stone, which gives this genuine reason less impact thanks to predictability. It can be somewhat tiring at points to lead us from set piece to set piece, but the effects work and little nooks and crannies of the universe discovered along the way are pretty damn entertaining. The mixture of CG & practical work on monsters like Aragog and the Basilisk are still astonishing. Even Dobby still feels like a living breathing creature for 2002 level special effects, though Toby Jones‘ delicate voice work adds a huge amount of sympathy. This culminates quite well with the ultimate sock reveal that gives Dobby freedom, though it’s a shame that the House Elf Liberation Subplot would ultimately go to the wayside for the films, leaving Dobby to languish until he would be needed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
There’s a lot to fault Chamber of Secrets for. It’s repetitive reputation proceeds it. Yet, it’s not at all a slog to get through. There are fun character beats, the cast returning & new is still entertaining to watch develop and the tone of the rather grim climax manages to keep the ominous potential of films to come afterward intact, even giving Harry more to do than the one for the previous film. Even some of the moments it repeats are improved, but that’s still not enough to make the general actions of Chamber of Secrets stand out that much. It’s pretty much necessary set up with fun set pieces to help the medicine go down. Yet, it’s not without triumphant moments. As cliche as the slow clap finale is, the return of of Hagrid still brings a smile to my cold cynical heart even after over a decade. It shows that the schmaltz of Chris Columbus could still be utilized well, but at the same time was overstaying its welcome and Warner Bros wisely saw fit to change up the director’s chair for a darker auteur. Until then, let’s wait to see how those planted Mandrake scenes sprout and scream in our ears for next time (which will be sooner rather than later) for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Basilisk Fangs