THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Last year at this time, I reviewed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I didn't like it. The movie seemed so slavishly tied to the book that, for me at least, it never took on a life of its own. It was as though the film was suffocated by everyone's desire to bring the book to the screen exactly as it is. In my review, I said: "Rather than investing the movie with creativity or imagination, the filmmakers have cranked out a generic assembly line blockbuster." Needless to say, some Harry Potter lovers felt I was being way too hard.

A year later, we get Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, based on book two in J.K. Rowling's best-selling series. As an experiment, I decided not to read the second book prior to seeing the movie. And to my surprise, I found this a vastly superior sequel. I don't think that reading or not reading the books has anything to do with my opinion, though. The simple truth is that this is a better movie, capturing all the things that I felt were missing from the first.

Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets
Daniel Radcliffe returns as Potter, as do Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. The story begins with Harry returning to Hogwarts for his sophomore year. Before arriving, he is greeted by an elf called Dobby who warns him that bad things are going to happen. Dobby turns out to be right. Not long after the school year begins, a message is found scrawled in blood on a wall. It says that the "chamber of secrets" has been opened. Several students are found petrified - frozen stiff in the hallways. Harry believes the mystery might have something to do with Slytherin, one of the school's houses. His arch-nemesis Malfoy belongs to that house, and Malfoy's equally creepy father (Jason Isaacs) has been trolling around Hogwarts as well.

As before, a variety of top British actors play smaller roles. The late Richard Harris is Professor Dumbledore, Maggie Smith is Professor McGonagal, and Robbie Coltrane is Hagrid. Kenneth Branaugh joins the cast as Gilderoy Lockhart, a self-aggrandizing professor who has penned several popular autobiographies.

So why is Chamber of Secrets a better movie? For starters, the plot this time is darker and more interesting. Harry Potter must confront genuine evil, which leads to several exciting scenes and unexpected subplots. I also have to give the film credit for bringing such a complex story to the screen without feeling the need to dumb it down for children. Rowling, director Chris Columbus, and screenwriter Steve Kloves obviously feel kids are sophisticated enough to "get" the themes of bravery and evil, malice and heroism.

The special effects are much improved as well. For instance, I thought the Quidditch game in Sorcerer's Stone was pretty lame; the effects were overly bombastic, yet still cheesy. The Quidditch game here is fast and furious, reminding me of the pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I. It has a more you-are-there quality that sucked me in. Other times, the improved effects are used to compliment the story. There's a wonderful scene involving a flying car toward the beginning of the film. About mid-way though, Harry and Ron are chased by a flood of angry spiders of all sizes. Everything about the chase is creepy and gross and...great.

Mostly, though, I think Chamber of Secrets has a sense of magic the original lacked for me. It's there in the big moments, but in the small ones as well. (Ron's broken magic wand, for example, provides some really imaginative moments, such as when a spell to "eat slugs" humiliatingly backfires.) I really can't say how faithful to Rowling's novel this film is. My guess it that it's pretty close. But it doesn't have that same assembly line quality I griped about before. Every scene brought something new that captured my imagination; you can just feel the makers loosening up and having fun with the material. Even with a running time that is ten minutes longer than the previous movie, Chamber of Secrets never seems slow and never seems to drag. So many wondrous things are going on that I didn't get bored this time.

I'm really glad that I liked this movie. J.K. Rowling created a nice little book with appealing characters. Her work seemed custom made for a movie. After a botched first attempt, the filmmakers have managed to truly capture the spirit of her work. Something so creative deserves an adaptation that does it justice - one that appeals to the adults as well as the kids. This time, they got it just right.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: As I said, the sequel is much darker than the original. Several parts will probably be much too scary for very young children. Although the movie is rated PG, it pushes the border of a PG-13. Parents beware.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is rated PG for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language. The running time is 2 hours and 41 minutes.

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