- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

The second time proves an artistic and professional charm for the Harry Potter movie team. An enormous public was ready to embrace the maiden effort, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," a year ago so enormous that the picture settled into second place, behind "Titanic," in the ranks of contemporary blockbusters.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," directed by Chris Columbus and opening today, improves on the prototype in just about every respect and is an excellent argument for sequels. The most conspicuous constant is the ongoing charm of the three juvenile leads: Daniel Radcliffe is even more earnestly winning as Harry, Rupert Grint even more humorously winning as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson even more precociously winning as Hermione Granger.
These three middle school musketeers are reunited in an atmosphere of admirably sustained and modulated mystery for an ominous second year at the castle housing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an alternative institution of learning that may or may not produce graduates whose aptitude for magic is a discreet boon to the civilian population, known and sometimes disparaged as "muggles."
The sorriest examples of muggles are Harry's closest relatives and grudging guardians, an aunt and uncle named Vernon and Petunia Dursley (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw, sorely wasted as trifling caricatures). The hero is discovered once again in their custody, with a graceful establishing shot that glides into his bedroom window one enchanted night.
Harry's summer penance with the Dursleys is mercifully short. It also is overshadowed by the sudden, eccentrically beguiling appearance of the first of several new characters: a servile but mischievous gnome called Dobby, rendered through computer-graphic animation and dubbed with a distinctive note of self-pity by Toby Jones.
He has materialized to warn Harry against a return to Hogwarts. We learn that Dobby also has gone to exceptional lengths to isolate Harry from news of his classmates. Failing to extort the promise he seeks, Dobby creates havoc at a Dursley dinner party. Fuming Uncle Vernon takes reprisals against Harry that demand a midnight rescue by Ron and his brothers, flying a vintage Ford Anglia that proves indispensable to the boys on three occasions.
Transported to the ramshackle but inviting Weasley residence, called the Burrow, Harry is informed that he has inspired a crush in a younger sister named Ginny (Bonnie Wright), approaching her first year at Hogwarts.
He is whisked to a wizardly quarter of London to attend a book-signing party that introduces the happiest addition to the school faculty: Kenneth Branagh as a best-selling, cheerfully vain celebrity named Gilderoy Lockhart, who seems to have a matinee-idol stranglehold on the market for tomes about magic. He reappears at Hogwarts as a rather haphazard instructor in "defense against the dark arts."
One gets the bemused impression that Gilderoy might have endowed the post himself, persuading the distinguished, awesomely white-bearded headmaster Dumbledore (a repeat and now valedictory performance by the late Richard Harris) that a box-office name could have advantages that trump simple competence.
Gilderoy emerges as such a blithe and exploitable charlatan in Mr. Branagh's hands that it would be astute to protect his tenure. Not an easy task on the face of things, because the plot forces Gilderoy to suffer a memory lapse that might render even superficial classroom instruction beyond his diminished capacity.
It becomes apparent that defense against the dark arts is a clear and present need during Harry Potter's second year. Hallowed Hogwarts becomes a deathtrap during most of "Chamber of Secrets." It's so fraught with menace that spectators who refer to "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Horrors" would be quite justified in getting the title slightly wrong, thanks to visual-effects wizards Nick Dudman, Jim Mitchell and Nick Davis.
The most benevolent faculty members seem ill-prepared to remedy the drift. Several residents are discovered in a petrified condition, and the timing always throws ill-founded suspicion on Harry, who ultimately must call upon his untested powers.
In addition to the bevy of creatures in the movie, Harry also has to deal with his schoolboy nemesis, Draco, again played by Tom Felton, and Draco's silver-tressed and autocratic father, Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs).
Mr. Isaacs embodies a far more haughty authority than his ostensible offspring, so the suggestion of potential malice at the leadership levels of Hogwarts acquires a stronger impression.
Although "Sorcerer's Stone" had an accomplished cinematographer, John Seale, who has shot the best Peter Weir and Anthony Minghella films, the pictorial schemes in "Chamber of Secrets," lit by Roger Pratt, seem more vivid and satisfying.
I'm not sure if menace alone does wonders for Hogwarts, but even the decorative aspects of the place the levitating candles in the great hall, the animated portraits on the walls become sharper and induce a constant sense of watchfulness.
The Quidditch game, which is blamed on flying broomsticks, was conspicuously botched in the first movie. It profits from a brilliant overhaul, reconciling speed with both near and distant perspectives while shifting the game itself in a breathtaking direction Harry gets pursued throughout the superstructure of the arena by a runaway ball, called a "bludger."
If the first movie was a foregone crowd-pleaser, the second is a classic feat of storybook filmmaking. It's even a bit longer, at 160 minutes, but the pace seems much more fluid and suspenseful. John Williams' score reflects the new assurance; it never overreaches but never gets obscured, either. The sense of atmospheric and emotional reinforcement that emanates from the music is impeccable.
To some extent, the team has been liberated from the need to introduce principal characters and settings, but the new film also uses those characters and settings to enhanced advantage while incorporating an abundance of fresh impressions and augmenting the cast.
"Chamber of Secrets" finds ways to be dynamically faithful to J.K. Rowling's book. The shakedown cruise seemed to interpret fidelity in stilted and literal-minded terms. Mr. Columbus and his associates have gone to school so effectively on the shortcomings of "Sorcerer's Stone" that they eliminate all the cobwebs from their encore. This time around, they seem genuinely confident in their credentials as yarn-spinners and entertainers.

****
TITLE: "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"
RATING: PG (Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional violence in an adventure fantasy context; fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity)
CREDITS: Directed by Chris Columbus. Produced by David Heyman. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Cinematography by Roger Pratt. Production design by Stuart Craig. Costume design by Lindy Hemming. Visual-effects supervisors Jim Mitchell and Nick Davis. Creature and makeup effects designer Nick Dudman. Special-effects supervisor John Richardson. Editing by Peter Honess. Music by John Williams, adapted and conducted by William Ross
RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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