Friday, March 3, 2023

Green Phoenix - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

With my schedule now back to normal following my trip to HarmonyCon 2023, I feel it is the best to get back into my writing. Now a few weeks back, I did a review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Where I determined that the film is decent but certainly has been dated and is far more children-oriented than I had previously mentioned. How the film relied far more on Chris Columbus' unique style to tell what would otherwise be a pretty bare bone children's mystery novel, giving very little away as to the larger narrative at work within the franchise.

Now it is time to move on to the film that I feel is the shifting point. Where the youthful energy of Sorcerer's Stone meets the more mature overarching plots of the later franchise, the film that I think finally got the series going in the direction it was meant to, even if it took another film to finally get the tone just right. I am talking about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, based on the second book by the author that shall not be named, released in 2002 alongside blockbuster hits like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. Does the film stand next to its fellow 2002 releases or is it a pale but necessary addition to the Harry Potter franchise.

  • Directed by Chris Columbus
  • Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Runtime: 161 Minutes
  • Rating: PG


As Harry Potter's second year at the magical school Hogwarts is about to begin, he gets a strange and dire warning about a terrible plot to destroy the school. When a series of mysterious attacks begin to petrify members of the student bodies, all tied to the mysterious Chamber of Secrets and the Heir of Salazar Slytherin (one of the four founders of Hogwarts), the school is driven into a state of paranoia, hate and fear.
Now its up to Harry and his friends to uncover who is behind the attacks and stop them before the attacks turn deadly...though the mystery gets even deeper when Harry himself is soon considered one of the prime suspects!



Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a mixed bag for me as a film. I think that it maintains on a technical level all the quality that one would expect from any of the other films in the series, though I do think it still maintains that largely children's adventure tone that the later films move away from that make the first two films in the franchise so much different from the others. From a visual and musical standpoint, the film maintains much of that same style that Chris Columbus is so known for that I mentioned in my Sorcerer's Stone review. Despite having a more defined narrative and underlying mystery, the film still spends a great deal of its time on separate slice of life moments that feel only tangentially related to the overall plot which, while funny, do somewhat muddle the plot and make some elements a little confusing.

The performances of the actors are all still fantastic and even if the visuals for Dobby feel a bit off (especially given that Gollum had premiered that same year in The Two Towers), I still feel like so much of this film holds up from a graphical standpoint. The basilisk scene is especially good as I still think that damn snake looks real. The child actors seem far more comfortable even if they seem to still be getting into their stride (especially Daniel Radcliffe) and I do think that Kenneth Branaugh does a wonderful job as the useless Gilderoy Lockhart, adding a pleasant bit of humor to a somewhat dour film at times.

There are quite a few elements that seem to be missing from the books that I felt helped explain some of the narrative confusions away, especially because there was quite a bit of political subtext going on in the book behind the attacks that, while still present in the film, is vastly unexplored. This is particularly notable I think with regards to the relationship between Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy. Which is weird given the importance of some of the politics that play into the later films and just how importance the interplay between the Weasleys and Malfoys are to the overall plot of this film in particular.
A key and fundamental part of this film in its place within the larger wizarding world is its effect on the interpretation of politics and the dark side of the wizarding world. With The Sorcerer's Stone, the audience was able to bear witness to Harry's childlike wonder of the magical world as he was introduced. As such, the film was bright and colorful and hopeful. Chamber of Secrets began to lift the veil on that whimsy by introducing thematic elements that would become hallmarks of the entire franchise going forward. Discussions of racism and prejudice, the relationship between wizards and non-wizards, government corruption and ineptitude, and the failure of systems intended to protect those most vulnerable all are introduced in Chamber of Secrets and become so prevalent in later entries of both the Harry Potter franchise and the Fantastic Beasts series, that by the time of the first Fantastic Beasts series I actually was introduced to a magical government so terrible that I actually wanted the pro-government people (the protagonists) to lose.

The biggest problem I ultimately have with this film is that it wants to explore those darker elements which make the later films in the Harry Potter franchise so notable, but it is still beholden to a distinctly childish outlook and overall tone. The later parts of the film are quite good, especially the final fight, but up until then; it still goes for a generic middle-school children's drama. I think it actually stems from the directors approach to the franchise and I seriously wonder if the later film would've had a similar tone to Chamber of Secrets and Sorcerer's Stone if Chris Columbus had directed those as well.

As it stands, while I enjoy parts of this film and certainly like it more than Sorcerer's Stone, I still think that Chamber of Secrets ranks among the bottom of the list within the franchise. The first two films in the franchise really do feel like a completely different franchise from the rest of the series.
Again, from a technical standpoint, its quite good. The visuals hold up mostly, the acting is good from almost everyone, pending some awkward interactions by extras. And I even like the twist at the end, even though it really does feel forced and heavy handed when the reveal as to who Tom Riddle actually is (the greatest dark wizard of all time was a punk emo kid who was into anagrams, huh?). I actually think the twist works better in hindsight with the author's full narrative intention known (since at the time of the film's release, the fifth book wouldn't be published for another seven months or so).

I think I feel for this film the same way I feel for a lot of Star Wars films. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a decently made movie, its just not a very strong Harry Potter film. I just think that I prefer the tone and focus of later films to the light-hearted whimsy of the earlier projects. Maybe because I know from watching the later films how dark and corrupt the wizarding world is so the weird childish veneer feels more disingenuous with hindsight.

I think that works to a degree in the franchises favor overall; a sort of loss of innocence angle sure, but it does make for a somewhat blase viewing experience. I do think that others will enjoy it and the film is actually necessary viewing for the rest of the series, it just doesn't excite me like the next film in the franchise.

So in summary, I want to like Chamber of Secrets far more than I actually do and I certainly had fun with action sequences and the ideas of the film that impact that affect its place in the larger franchise. I just feel like the directors choice to keep things whimsical leads to moments of tonal whiplash and thematic dishonesty, a few extras and child actors come off as awkward or forced, and a few dated effects that don't look quite as good as films that came out at the same time, lead the film to be something of a weird middle child of the franchise. An attempt to have the best of both worlds (child-like whimsy and mature teen drama) and not quite accomplishing either.

I applaud the attempt but it just doesn't work for me personally like other wizarding world films.
  • 8/10
  • 8/10
  • 7/10
  • 8/10

 FINAL SCORE - 7.75/10

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