*Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (PG)
Let's accent the positive: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a better movie than its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Its screenplay is a little funnier, the cognitive dissonance created in the first film by the presence of only white wizards is somewhat resolved here with more than one nonwhite face in the student body (although the white boys still get to do all the good stuff -- maybe we'll have to wait for movie No. 3), and the violent climax is a little more, well, violent. Director Chris Columbus has used a different group of animators -- in particular, a different creature animator -- and that makes a difference both in the comedic characters and in the nasty-creature-against-whom-Harry-must-prove-himself.
For those not familiar with the Harry Potter series (where have you been hiding?), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the story of Harry Potter's second year at Hogwarts, the apparently mandatory boarding school for young wizards nestled somewhere in the English countryside.
Despite his young age and having been raised by Muggles (nonmagic people), Harry is a famous wizard because, as an infant, he survived an attack by the terrible Lord Voldemort, who killed his parents. Given his substantial powers and his desire to always do Good, Harry is the target of the Bad wizards who wish to take power in the magical world. In this episode, those forces conspire to open the Chamber of Secrets hidden somewhere deep in Hogwarts and let loose the terrible creature within who will destroy all wizards who have Muggle blood -- like Harry and his good friend Hermione.
The two movies thus far, while sturdy and workmanlike, haven't yet captured the charm and magic of the Harry Potter books. Part of the problem lies in their too-faithful rendition of the books onto screen -- the unique characteristics of neither books nor film are well served when translation is so, um, literal. Part of the problem lies in pacing, with too much emphasis laid upon special effects (granted, they're great, but that's not the point) and not enough on story -- the movie is almost three hours long and still the ending is confusing.
When a movie sets out to be sequel-ized (as opposed to a surprise hit that produces a sequel as an afterthought), a special dynamic sets in; the artists and the audience understand they're in it for the long haul (the exception in this case being director Chris Columbus, who will be replaced in the next film by Alfonso Cuarn). With each movie, the world and the characters within it stand less on their own, and the strength or weakness in the work becomes visible through accretion, film by film.
For example, the Harry Potter series is clearly must-do work for a string of aging British actors: Maggie Smith builds not only upon her considerable body of comic work, but also upon her character as established last time; Richard Harris' role as Professor Dumbledore, head of Hogwarts, was his last before his recent death. A few visitors, such as Kenneth Branagh as the hilariously self-involved professor of the dark arts, and Shirley Henderson as the ghost Moaning Mabel, lighten up the house cast a little. We know we'll see evil guy Lucius Malfoy again (Jason Isaacs) and we can see then how well he holds up over time.
So, go see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and then wait and see. You may not be able to tell whether this movie works until, let's see, perhaps 2010, when the series is finally put to bed.
-- Andrea Lucard