Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Decidedly darker than its predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is also more satisfying and entertaining. Mere mortal words will have affect on your decision to see the film, but for those on the fence, there is good news and bad news. Good, because “Chamber of Secrets” is everything a sequel should be and more. Bad unless you pre-bought your tickets for this weekend.

If not, expect to see something else.

Since “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” introduced the characters and story, director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Kloves (like author J. K. Rowlins) are free to move beyond the familiar and explore deeper, more complex issues. The filmmakers are still slaves to the novel, but manage to take us beyond the written word and into a fantastical world that comes alive with spirited characters, exciting action, honest sentiment and a couple of scenes that will give impressionable children nightmares. What more could you want?

How about a sequel that in many ways is much better than the original. Most first chapters are saddled with the burden of character and plot exposition, allowing sequels to dispense with back story and get on with the action. With “Chamber of Secrets,” Columbus and Kloves get to have their cake and eat it too. The plot allows them to take the story both forward and backward, filling in plot points that will become key to the characters and their continuing adventures.

Everything about “Chamber of Secrets” is an improvement over the original, from the mammoth, jaw-dropping production design of Stuart Craig, perfectly captured in Roger Pratt’s stunning photography. The plot takes us to new places, and around every corner is a new surprise. The visual splendor of Craig’s sets are the heart of “Chamber of Secrets.”

The soul is in the performances, and even though their voices have changed, the kids are extremely engaging. Daniel Radcliffe is so endearing as Harry Potter, when it comes time to leave his humble hobble for a second year at Hogwarts, we’re 100 percent behind him, even though we know it will bring about more mischief and mayhem.

Trouble begins almost immediately when Harry is denied entrance to the secret train platform to Hogwarts. Forced to hitch a ride with best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), in a flying car no less, Harry and Ron make it to Hogwarts, but not before landing in and upsetting a cantankerous old tree. At school, Harry and Ron reunite with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), miss perfect straight-A student, and are immediately thrown into a new adventure.

All of the regular suspects and teachers return, including Richard Harris in his last role as Dumbledore, the school’s sympathetic and wise headmaster. Harris is obviously weak, but his presence is still larger than life. He’s the glue that holds the multi-generational tale together, and the one who suspects that the “Chamber of Secrets,” created by Salazar Slytherin, the school’s evil co-creator, has been opened.

All suspicions are confirmed when several students at the school are found “petrified,” leading Harry and friends to search for the truth. What they discover will delight, amuse, and perhaps scare kids of all ages. Scenes involving spiders are truly nightmarish, but the introduction of Dobby, a computer-generated elfin servant, should help balance out the menace. In-between are moments of exhilaration, danger, and just plain fun, such as when the students unleash more of their amateur wizard skills.

What I really like about the “Harry Potter” series is the way Rowlins writes for children, but doesn’t insult adults. Her novels are accessible and universal, and never condescend. Adults and children co-exist with equal respect and admiration. The adults aren’t cartoons, and the kids are smart but not infallible.

Maggie Smith as spell teacher Professor McGonagall, Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid the Giant, return, and are joined by a wonderfully deft Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, noted author and teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and daffy Miriam Margolyes as Sprout, new Herbology teacher. There’s also new evil in the presence of Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), father of Harry’s nemesis Draco, intent of cleansing Hogwarts of all Muggles.

As sophomores, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are more relaxed and assured. Their on-screen chemistry feels real and honest. Radcliffe digs deeper than the rest, forced to struggle with an inner-secret that could affect his friends and Hogwarts. Columbus and his team of visual and special effects artists work overtime to draw us into this magical world where anything is possible.

A SCARY HARRY Fans will be wild about “Harry Potter” sequel


Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris, John Cleese, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Issacs, and Warwick Davis. Directed by Chris Columbus. Rated PG. 161 Minutes.


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