The first two Harry Potter films had a lot riding on them, and Director Christopher Columbus is often criticized for lacking an edge to the films. In truth though, it wasn’t until the later books that the stories got deeper and the history started building on itself. This was a new venture and the book series was not complete when work on the first movies began. The kids in the story really are kids, not teenagers and so it seems appropriate to make these movies as children’s films and establish the universe that the characters will occupy for subsequent stories. This film came after “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Home Alone”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”, all films that have a comic kids sensibility. He was the right choice to baptize Harry into films and the two movies he made are excellent. They may not be everyone’s favorite Potter films, but they are essential and vastly entertaining.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets “is the second film in the franchise and takes us to the second year at Hogwarts. It continues to build the history of the school, show us an elaborate environment for the story to take place, and gives us another mostly stand alone hero story before the more complex interweaving of the following films. The beloved character of Dobby the house elf is introduced and even though he is primarily a CGI character, he comes to life and endears us in a way that Jar Jar Binks never could. Although Dobby can be annoying, his personality is understood as part of a character forced into a the circumstances that created him. He also is redemptive by the end of the series and was not overused just for laughs.
A character who appears only in this one film, but dominates the movie (although not the plot) is Gilderoy Lockhart, as depicted by Kenneth Branagh. When I first read the book, and thought of an actor to play this character, Hugh Grant came immediately to mind. The vain, slightly silly and lightweight nature of the character seemed a perfect fit. The trivia on IMDB says that Grant was actually cast but had to withdraw due to a scheduling conflict. Nothing against Hugh Grant, I really enjoy him as an actor, but Kenneth Branagh was perfection in this film. He had the same qualities I mentioned above, but he also plays an unctuousness that I’m not sure Grant could have brought. Lockhart is the real comic relief in the film and he is inserted just enough to justify his presence, even though the character is superfluous to the main story. This is the only Patter film with a post credits sequence and it naturally is a joke about Gilderoy Lockhart.
While the film is a little more dark in plot line, the photography matches that pretty well while still managing to keep the mostly upbeat tone of the first two books. There are still kids style shenanigans. and the young actors sometimes over do the mugging for the camera, Radcliffe is stronger in the role as he is moving into the other films, Grint and Watson are a little behind but still better than in the first movie. The maturation process of growing up seems to have worked on the actors because they get better with each subsequent film.
This was the last film for Richard Harris who originated the role of Dumbledore. In the same year he played a part in a terrific version of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, where his character is quite aged and infirm. Harris was dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he made both movies and his delicate state was unfortunately obvious on film. I would never say it was a blessing that he passed on, but I will say that recasting was needed because Dumbledore, while aging, is still a vital and dynamic figure in the series, and Michael Gambon was more up to the task in the remaining films.
One of the most inventive elements of the story was Tom Riddle’s Diary. The effect of Harry, entering the pages of the diary, foreshadows the magic of the pensive which will become essential later in the stories. The other element of this is that the diary turns out to be one of the Horcrux that Harry is searching for in the last two films and it really helps tie the universe together without making every new component feel like it is being retconned into the plot. “The Chamber of Secrets” is surprisingly, the longest of the Harry Potter films, but it does not feel that way because of the light touch Chris Columbus brought to assembling it and the brilliant insertion of Kenneth Branagh into the role of Gilderoy Lockhart.