Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets(2002), Directed by Chris Columbus. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Emma Watson, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs, Shirley Henderson, John Cleese, Bonnie Wright.
Synopsis: Something, or some one, doesn't want Harry Potter to return to Hogwarts for his second year of classes. He desperately wants to go back to school, having had a bellyful of the Dursley's, the ghastly Muggle family of his mother's sister. Much to Harry's annoyance, a house elf named Dobby keeps insisting that he mustn't return at the risk of his very life. Every attempt to return ends in disaster, sabotaged, it seems, by Dobby: the magically concealed platform from which the Hogwarts express leaves is mysteriously closed to Harry and Ron Weasley; then the Weasley family car, magically enchanted to fly, breaks down in mid-flight, landing Harry and Ron in the branches of Hogwart's whomping willow, a tree with a VERY bad attitude. Once back to school, Harry discovers ominous doings, centered around a legendary Chamber of Secrets, rumored to contain a force that will cleanse the school of anyone who isn't a true-born wizard. The chamber, according to school folklore, will be opened by the "heir to Slytherin." Meanwhile, the Harry's second year of classes commences, including class work with the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart is charismatic, deeply conceited, and fundamentally inept. A new season of Quiddich commences, too, and Harry finds himself face to face with his arch-enemy, Draco Malfoy, the new seeker for House Slytherin. Malfoy has it in for Harry (who is simply his enemy) and Hermione, who he calls a "mudblood" because she comes from parents who are non-magical Muggles. This all unfolds beneath a pall of doom: a message appears on the wall declaring that "The Chamber of Secrets has been opened," after the paralyzed bodies of Nearly Headless Nick and Mr. Filch's cat are found. Soon other students are found in similar conditions and the Administration considers closing down Hogwarts. Worse still, because Harry can talk to snakes, some of the school's inhabitants think HE's the heir to Slytherin (who possessed the same gift). And what does the mysterious diary of long-ago student Tom Riddle have to do with things...?

Unfinished Business: At the conclusion of my review of the first Harry Potter movie, I wrote the following paragraph:

Writing in Danse Macabre, Harry Potter-admirer Stephen King once noted that good fantasy is about power: about how the powerless find power within themselves, about how the powerful lose their power, or about how power that has been lost is regained. He notes that bad fantasy is also about power, but it is about how the powerful wield their power. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone SEEMS to be about the powerless finding power inside themselves (and, in print, this may well be the case), but the climactic scenes at the end of the film got me to wondering. All of the students at Hogwarts have an inate magical power--it's what sets them apart from the "muggles." Isn't Hogwarts, then, a training ground for a powerful elite in how to use their power? This thought troubles me and makes me rather reluctant to revisit this particular world when the inevitable sequel arrives. In fact, it makes me reluctant to pick up the books themselves. Yes, yes, I know that these books have done the world a great service by getting young people interested in reading and all that, but we all know where a road paved with good intentions leads....

Imagine my profound surprise upon reading the second book (I've read the books in the interim between the movies) to discover that Harry's creator, J.K. Rowling had made this very issue central to the conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The sneering racism expressed by Draco Malfoy (and the more subdued, but equally virulent version expressed by his father, Lucius Malfoy) and the underlying thread that suggests that a genocidal agenda was what made Lord Voldemort, Harry's arch-enemy, so evil went a long way towards easing me into the rest of Rowling's fantasy world. These books turn out NOT to be power fantasies after all.

But having read them, I understand exactly what is missing in Chris Columbus's first film, and what is missing in the second. Rowling's wry wit is missing. These movies plod in a way that the books never do. If the second movie is better than the first movie--and it is--it is more because the second book is better than the first book. Chris Columbus hasn't magically become a better director, and I understand now what a terrific loss it is to the world that the producers of these films decided that Terry Gilliam wasn't tractable enough to be entrusted with the franchise. Here's hoping that Alfonso Cuarón has better luck with it.

Second Verse, Same as the First: So what's wrong with the second film? Exactly what's wrong with the first film, as it so happens. Like the first film, this has the feeling of being a series of disconnected episodes rather than being a story, per se. I compared the first film to a Viewmaster slide show, and the second film feels the same. If the second film seems to have more narrative drive than the first film, that's because the second book has more narrative drive. Dispensing with all of the exposition allows the filmmakers to dive right in to staging their elaborate setpieces with a minimum of explanation. This speeds up the movie, but the movie STILL bloats to an inexplicably longer length than the first film.

In the interest of fairness, it should be mentioned that the virtues of the first film are also virtues in the second. The supporting cast is a veritable who's who of British actors, from Dame Maggie Smith and the late Richard Harris, all the way down to Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle. The two principle additions to the cast are masterstrokes from the casting office: Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart might just as well be a parody of Branagh himself and Jason Isaacs is so hissably nasty as Lucius Malfoy that he gets boos just from the way he twitches his eyes. If there were an Academy Award for casting, I'd happily vote for the folks who cast this movie.

Our three principle actors--Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione--have improved noticeably from the first film. With Radcliffe's performance, this stems from the fact that he is less of a stand in for the audience this time out and more of an active participant. He has more to do and he does it admirably well. The film's production designers have also made some improvements, and Hogwarts and its environs seem more and more to be derived from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast than any other source. One wishes, however, that the background animators would quit distracting the audience with all those damned moving paintings. I know they're in the book, but that doesn't make them any less annoying on film.