Learning the rules is a necessity for playing any game and can often be quite fun, but it’s usually spent waiting for the game to start. That’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), the second in the series and the first in which we have some understanding of the curious world in which we find ourselves. The structure of the movie is mostly the same as the first, but that’s just as well. Time doesn’t need to be given to explanation so those repeated sequences serve to deepen our comprehension. The world gets a little larger but in baby steps compared with the massive expansion that lies ahead. We are playing the same game for a second time but armed with the rules for this go-around.
It’s the end of summer and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is back under the purview of his nasty uncle, aunt and cousin, the non-magical Dursleys. During an important business evening for Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), Harry is visited by a bothersome creature named Dobby, a computer-generated being voiced by Toby Jones. Dobby is a house elf, a race of slaves owned by the rich and powerful wizarding families, and he’s come to warn Harry that he mustn’t go back to the wizarding school of Hogwarts because there is a plot to kill him. Harry, knowing even then that plots to kill him will be the norm for the rest of his education, insists that he must go back, and Dobby reacts by ruining Uncle Vernon’s dinner, magically dropping a cake on the wife of an important client. Vernon answers as expected, grounding Harry, judging by the boards he nails over the window and doors of Harry’s room, for life.
For many of the movies in the series, I find the Dursley sequences to be the highlight. Their raucous skewering of the sitcom situations are often uproarious and even more often represent the only connection with the real world the movie will provide us. Once Harry gets to school, he’s surrounded by other magical weirdos and eccentric characters; at the Dursleys house we get a better example of how the otherworldly powers can relate in the world we live in. The sequences are humanizing.
Despite Uncle Vernon’s carpentry, Harry manages to escape by means of a flying car driven by his friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and finds himself back at Hogwarts where it seems that the Chamber of Secrets, a hidden space in the castle, has been opened and a mysterious creature has been quite literally petrifying the residents. Harry, Ron and the third leg of their sleuthing tripod, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), are on the case until Hermione finds herself among the number of frozen-stiff students.
As the three investigate the cause of the opening of the dangerous Chamber, the school year progresses with its new classes, new teachers and matches of Quidditch, a wizarding sport played on broomsticks. The returning faculty include Headmaster Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and the slithery Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). Added to their ranks is the pompous Professor Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), a celebrity of wizarding adventures who’s more than a little impressed with himself. We learn more about the dark wizard Voldemort, the murderer of Harry parents, and more disturbingly, we learn of his eminent return. We find out about wizard racism, where some wizards are prejudiced against non-magical people, called Muggles, and even are disposed away from wizards whose parents are Muggles.
Chris Columbus, directing his second Potter episode, is more comfortable, being freed of the burden of explanation, but also more indulgent. Despite not being weighed down by that burden the movie runs over two-and-a-half hours and drags considerably more than the first. It’s still a lot of fun, especially with the flying car, a brood of oversize spiders, and a set-piece that combines them both. There’s also an exceptionally aggressive tree called the Whomping Willow that earns his name. More fun still is the brewing of a shape-shifting potion that allows Harry and Ron to do some spying by borrowing the bodies (but not the voices) of other people. Sadly, while retaining its length, the movie isn’t as detailed as the first either, though the intricate Chamber of Secrets pays off nicely.
The child actors continue to come into their own, having once again been asked to support the story. Grint in particular shines, as the script gives him plenty to showcase his easy humor. As the best friend, it’s Ron’s job to supply identification for the kids in the audience; he spends a lot of his time looking scared while Harry the hero screws his eyes and steels his courage, and Grint has a good scared face. More confident is Watson who is quite engaging until she’s frozen out of the story. Radcliffe does the thankless work as the steady lead which he is on his way to perfecting. Among the adults Rickman’s snaky strangeness continues to be the most enjoyable, but he’s rivaled by the oily Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), the snotty father of the school bully.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) doesn’t have the awe of the first movie but it retains its youthful animation, and it serves its purpose of continuing our education in the wizarding universe. Soon enough the stories will be too stuffed to the gills and we’ll have to know this stuff, so a second primer isn’t unwelcome. It’s competent, well above-average and, for much of it, more fun than you can shake a wand at.