Rated PG - Running Time: 2:41 - Released 11/15/02

As a film critic, I am certainly thankful that Harry Potter-mania has replaced Pokémon-mania during the last few years; while I’m not what you would call a devoted Harry fan, the films featuring him are leagues better than those mind-numbing Pikachu-fests of a few years ago. Needless to say, Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, the second in J.K. Rowling’s projected 7-episode series about everybody’s favorite adolescent wizard (the 5th of which is now reportedly finished) and the first sequel to last year’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, adapted for the screen by Steven Kloves, is no less magical, no less engaging, and no less kid-pleasing than its record-breaking predecessor. It’s also no shorter; in fact its running time, at a whopping 161 minutes, is ten minutes longer than Sorcerer’s Stone, which I felt was already too long for any film aimed at elementary school-age kids.

Re-convening pretty much the entire cast of Sorcerer’s Stone, and adding a few notable new names to the cast, Chamber begins with Harry’s second year at that venerable wand-waving institution, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although he is visited at home by a short, large-eyed creature named Dobby the house elf (a digitally animated creation with the voice of Toby Jones), who tells him not to return to Hogwarts because his life is in danger, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), now 12 years old, decides as usual to ignore the advice offered him and sneaks back to school with his best friend, the timid but affable Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), using Ron’s family’s flying car. There he is re-united with other fellow sophomores like the ever-studious-but-still-has-time-for-mischief Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and arch-enemy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose father Lucius (Jason Isaacs) has also shown up to help Draco and his pals torment the good guys. Also introduced is a new professor named Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), a world-famous and hopelessly vain heartthrob wizard who has been assigned to teach the academy’s Defense Against The Dark Arts classes, but spends most of his time signing autographed pictures for his throngs of admiring fans.

Soon after arriving at school, Harry starts to notice some weird things happening, and it’s not just from eating magic chocolate frogs. Certain students are being petrified, messages are being written on the walls in blood, and rumor has it that the mysterious “chamber of secrets,” which was installed centuries ago by malevolent school co-founder Salazar Slytherin to trap non-pureblood wizards, has been opened. Not only this, but some people think Harry is responsible, like Groundskeeper Argus Filch (David Bradley) and surly Prof. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Whatever the reason, the chamber’s opening could spell the end of Hogwarts, at least according to Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris, whose recent death will obviously preclude him from appearing in future sequels). Harry, Ron, and Hermione must figure out what’s going on and fast, or their beloved school will be forced to close its doors.

I’ve not read any of the Harry Potter series (yet), but I’m told that each book is exponentially more complex than the last; I suppose I should be thankful this movie is only 10 minutes longer than Sorcerer’s Stone, considering the mountain of new characters and exposition that are required. But it does concern me, if all seven of the ever-more complicated books are to be produced as motion pictures, and each is as meticulously faithful to its source text as the first two have been, that the ensuing films can do nothing but become more and more ponderous, more filled with every bit of inconsequential dialogue and every minor action scene, and more minutes in length. Perhaps the seventh and final film will be measured in days rather than hours. Perhaps viewers will have to bring a change of clothes or book a room in a local hotel when they buy their tickets. Is it not ever possible to edit these Rowling tomes, or is this slavish dedication to preserving every image absolutely necessary? I know, I know...Crusty critic chastises Chamber with compulsive clock-watching. But I’m not just whining about a sore butt here. I’m talking about the need for more efficient editing, the need to resist overindulgence, on the part of Columbus and his crew. I’m as thrilled by the HP movies as the next guy, but I would be unequivocally delighted if they all managed to be 2 hours long. And they could do it if they tried.

Chamber Of Secrets is of course rife with amazing magical effects, clever, witty dialogue, and plenty of action. The acting has improved infinitesimally among the three leading teens, and the technique of the adult cast, including not only those named above but Dame Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall and Robbie Coltrane as Gamekeeper Hagrid, is uniformly above reproach. And we are treated to such technical wonders as giant spiders (very similar to those in this summer’s Eight Legged Freaks, but not as funny), an angry “whomping willow” tree, and an immense basilisk that looks like a giant iguana with no legs. A magic diary that answers questions written in it, another action-packed quidditch game, Cornish pixies, screaming mandrake plants. Neato. But is it all necessary.

Chamber is beautifully rendered, using the combined talents of cinematographer Roger Pratt, production designer Stuart Craig, costume designers Lindy Hemming and Michael O'Conner, and all the others involved in this immense production. If you liked Sorcerer’s Stone, and you can stay awake, there is no doubt this will please you. So bring an extra seat cushion, go to the bathroom beforehand, pop a No-Doz, and enjoy. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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