The second Harry Potter film ups the ante in terror, special effects - and length.
By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2002
After two films, the Harry Potter franchise is already showing signs of wearing out audiences, if not its welcome. Everything is larger, louder and, above all, longer in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a movie that won't disappoint fans of J.K. Rowling's books but may test their patience.
Introductions were handled in last year's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, bringing to life Rowling's netherworld of wizards, witches and things that go bump at the box office. Director Chris Columbus plunges headlong into a darker, more violent narrative with creepier adult authority figures and grotesque monsters, barely pausing long enough for folks to catch their breath. But with a running time of more than 21/2 hours, that kind of intensity can be suffocating.
Harry's story is gradually shifting from childish fantasy into scary territory, which riled some parents of young readers when the book came out and will definitely do the same in cinematic form. The leap in terror is comparable to that of Jurassic Park II and the second Indiana Jones flick. The movie is no more graphic than a carnival fright house but something for parents to consider, along with children's attention spans.
This episode begins with young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) on holiday from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, practically imprisoned by the aunt and uncle who have been his careless guardians since the mysterious Lord Voldemort murdered the infant Harry's parents. A digitally animated elf servant named Dobby -- think of him as Jar Jar Binks with better diction -- warns Harry to skip the upcoming school year because an evil force threatens Hogwarts students.
Harry runs away with the help of his classmate Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and a flying Ford Anglia automobile, landing in a Walloping Willow tree that will pop into a few nightmares. We again meet the familiar faculty: wise Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris, sounding frail), McGonagall (Maggie Smith with less to do) and severe Snape (Alan Rickman). New to the staff is Kenneth Branagh as a celebrity sorcerer named Gilderoy Lockhart, a delightful narcissist contributing the best comic elements.
Of course, Harry's best allies are back. Robbie Coltrane gets to lumber around a few scenes as the giant Hagrid. Emma Watson makes the best case among the young actors for having a career beyond the Potter series as Hermione Granger, a solid role model for girls in a mostly male fantasy.
The rivalry continues between Harry's Gryffindor class and the vaguely fascist Slytherin group, allowing Columbus to show off his latest computer toys in a more dazzling game of Quidditch than in the first film. A ghost named Moaning Myrtle is prowling the campus, and Voldemort could be working through anybody at any time.
When everyone is in place, the plot kicks in, something about a monster in a secret chamber that someone is setting loose to petrify Hogwarts students. Evidence points to Harry, but that's obviously a frameup. Mostly it's an excuse for an army of technicians to duplicate Rowling's vision: Mandrake roots resembling screaming turnip babies, a spider stampede, an angry letter from home shape-shifting into a lecturing mouth and blue Cornish pixies doing a Gremlins routine in Lockhart's class.
The effects are special, yet a sense of overkill creeps in when there's still an hour to go. The mystery's solution is satisfying even after so many creatures and scowls have passed before our eyes, and so much doomsaying has passed through our ears. Columbus is almost too faithful to the book. Some sequences extend so long that one has time to ponder Radcliffe and Grint's rapidly advancing puberty and Dumbledore's future after Harris' death.
There is no doubt that Potterphiles will make the movie a hit. Columbus' confidence in the franchise can be sensed in each frame of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But there is a point at which confidence strays over the line into cashing in. This movie's magic feels more mechanical than the first film, substituting precision for wonderment and surprise. How many times can we be expected to watch the same rabbits pulled from a hat?
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Miriam Margolyes
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Rating: PG; scary images, violence
Running time: 161 min.
Tonight on the Biography Channel:
8: The World of Harry Potter, a new special on the Potter phenomenon, with director Chris Columbus and stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy)
9-10: J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and Me, repeat of a Biography profile of Harry Potter's creator.