There was a time, a solid decade in fact, in which Harry Potter was the center of the known universe. The books were best sellers on a global scale, competitive only with the Bible, and the first movie was a box-office juggernaut. While that brand may have been tarnished recently with the release of a controversial play and the once untouchable author retconning a main character’s sexuality and revealing vital information about where the wizards relieved themselves before toilets, the original books were and remain unassailable classics. With every new book and every new movie, Potter Mania was at a fever pitch. The books were everywhere, and children dressed up in their Hogwarts robes for parties. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets exploded into cinemas. Let’s continue our revisit of the franchise by taking look at how this much loved sequel has withstood the decade and a half since its release.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
How Much Story Can One Film Hold?
Harry Potter’s second year at Hogwarts proves to be just as perilous as the year before, if not more so. I used to think it was stunning how every year at Hogwarts was more eventful than the last, but now we live in the Trump’s America where every day brings fresh hell, so I suppose I was just naive. But Harry’s battle against a fascist dictator was years away! For now, Harry finds himself in the middle of a would-be murder mystery as the mysterious Chamber of Secrets has been opened and someone (or something) is petrifying students, ghosts, and cats alike. It’s dark times at Hogwarts, and Harry is suspect number one.
That description makes the film seem like a tight, tense thriller, but in fact, the opposite is true. J.K. Rowling may have used every word in the dictionary to write her 251 page novel, but ‘tight’ is not one of them. Instead, we begin our story with more delightful whimsy, as Harry’s life is turned upside down by the introduction of a clumsy, self-abusing House Elf named Dobby. Dobby warns Harry that dark things are afoot and begs Harry not to return to Hogwarts, the only place he’s ever been happy.
Harry refuses, causing Dobby to drop a cake on a woman’s head, which lands Harry behind bars. Harry is rescued by some of his best friends, Ron, Fred & George Weasley, in a flying car and the group escapes. And honestly, if I went into vivid description of all the things that happen in this movie, we’d be here all day. So, in summary, Harry and Ron fly the car to Hogwarts. Weasley’s wand is broken in the process. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is a glamorous, self-aggrandizing wizard named Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branaugh). Harry’s arm is broken after a rogue bludger attacks him at a Quidditch Match, and the school turns against Harry when it turns out he can talk to snakes. That’s right, that cute little detail in the first movie is actually a sign that Harry may be the heir of Slytherin (the bad house where bad wizards come from).
There are also wizard racial slurs, a magical diary that talks to Harry, the introduction of a Wizard Prison known as Azkaban, voices in Harry’s head that no one else can hear, Harry’s uncanny ability to always seem to wind up at the scene of a crime before anyone else, a potion that allows you to look like anyone else as long as you have some hair, Hermione Granger turning into a cat, the Weasley sister being kidnapped, a Phoenix that catches on fire, an army of spiders, a giant snake, and dear GOD there is so much in this movie!
This is both a charm and a detriment to the movies as a whole. Anyone who lives for the world of Harry Potter will be unable to find anything but joy in floating cakes and flying cars and whomping willows, but anyone who hasn’t taken a deep soak in the lore will be excused if they fall asleep out of sheer boredom.
As I mentioned in my previous review, the Harry Potter films have always been at war with the Harry Potter charm. While the “plot” may involve Harry and his pals trying to solve a mystery, the strength of the stories has always been in the way Rowling peppered magic into her fantastical world. The subplot of Ron Weasley’s malfunctioning wand is a perfect example as it has him struggle with this manifestation of his insecurities, which works both as a world building apparatus (Rowling even invents her own scotch tape for the Wizarding world) but also as a tool to progress the plot, whether its contriving a duel between Harry and Draco Malfoy or backfiring on Lockhart at a key opportunity.
Confidence is Key
Watching the first and second films back to back, it becomes immediately clear how much more confident the films and filmmakers had become in the interim. Daniel Radcliffe in particular had grown leaps and bounds as a performer and on more than one occasion he was asked to not only balance tense or comedic scenes, but he had to do them entirely by himself! To ask this of any actor is a challenge. We had already seen major actors fall on their faces with the Star Wars prequels. But Radcliffe pulls it off. It was clear, even then, that this kid was a real performer.
The production feels more streamlined, the camera is looser, and the Quidditch sequence that pits Harry against the Slytherin House equipped with faster brooms (the Nimbus 2001!) is legitimately compelling. Lockhart removing the bones from Harry’s arm is a cute introduction to Cronenbergian Body Horror for the kiddies. But most importantly, the children, now rampaging through puberty, feel like active participants in the scenes, rather than children plugged into events. You’ll notice that the trio never interact with Fluffy the way they combat the Cornish Pixies. But you can’t fix every problem. The sequence where Harry and Ron ask a thousand car-sized spiders for advice never feels as dangerous or creepy crawly as it ought to, and that’s inevitably due to the complexity of the effects and the speed of the shoot.
A Grueling Schedule
Harry Potter was a Boyhood before Boyhood. But while Richard Linklater filmed uneventful moments to build up a compelling epic, the Harry Potter franchise aimed to shoot an epic. Every. Year. This was probably impossible, especially with the books not yet completed and therefore no screenplay or outline truly committed to more than a year in advance.
It is undeniably impressive that the crew was able to write, produce, film, and release two massive blockbusters in two years, but it was also an unrealistic challenge to set for themselves. Indeed, this was the film that broke Christopher Columbus, who had originally intended to direct all seven films himself before realizing that this schedule would take time away from his own family.
While the action is more dynamic and the actors are more improvisational, the schedule still moves forward at an unrelenting pace and some elements of the film are going to suffer. The Basilisk scene is tense and the animatronics are outstanding, but the final confrontation feels like a made-for-tv action scene. Lastly, the creative process of John Williams is hindered, only bringing one new theme to the table.
By 2002, Nerd Culture already had Hollywood by the throat. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings was in it’s second installment. Sam Raimi’s Spider-man was breaking box office records, and there was even a Star Wars film in there. Despite that stiff competition, Chamber of Secrets was a smash hit, though not grossing quite as much as it’s predecessor. The film’s massive haul of $879 million was only enough to grant them second place worldwide (behind The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and ahead of Spider-man.)
Last Word On Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a film sagging under its own weight, which isn’t a comforting sign when you’re only two films into a seven book/eight film franchise.
At this point, a reality was becoming clear: Harry Potter could coast on its popularity by being the it thing at the moment, but if they wanted to stand above the Lord of the Rings franchises of the world, they were going to have to reset, regroup, and take some time to make a real movie and not just a filmed version of the books.
And that’s just what did, but we’ll discuss all that when we review the 2004 masterpiece Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Best scene: The Dueling Club scene. Playful and fun, dark and dangerous; this scene brings a bit of action into the film but also gets two scenery-chewing performances out of Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh.
MVP: Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh replaced Hugh Grant at the last minute, but he absorbs every scene he’s in and he plays the part perfectly. A-.
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