Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002, 161 min.)

Part experiment, part laziness, I went to see the second installation of the fantastically successful Harry Potter franchise without having read the book. Not having a control-group version of myself, however, I am unable to tell if I enjoyed this film more than the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, because it was a better movie or because I didn’t already know everything that was going to happen, exactly as it happened. Judging from the responses of the friends with whom I saw it, I think it’s probably a better movie, but that it too is almost completely faithful to the book, so I suppose that it’s best that I had not yet read it. It is entirely possible to make a great movie out of a great book, or a great movie out of a mediocre book, but it’s a difficult feat to pore through a book and cull things that won’t work cinematically, while capturing the elusive feel of the book that is usually what readers really love, whether they can put it into words or not.

So, having excused myself from any arguments as to whether the movie is faithful to the book or not, I can talk about whether the movie was a good movie or not. While it’s certainly not Great Cinema, it was pretty enjoyable, if punishingly long and slow in parts; it did away with the lengthy exposition of the first movie, assuming that we already know who everyone is. How it clocked in even longer is beyond me. It moved better than the first one: there was more continuity between scenes, a sense of A following logically from B instead of feeling like a series of setpieces with little to tie them together.

The film covers the second year for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and company at Hogwarts. It begins with Harry struggling to escape the clutches of his Muggle relatives, who don’t want him to return to the academy. Other creatures want him to stay home too; Dobby, an ugly little elf that speaks in an annoying third person (“Dobby thinks that…” reminding me of “Bob Dole won’t…”), tries his magical best to keep Harry from boarding the magical train, saying that someone wants to do him harm, although he won’t say who. Thankfully, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his twin brothers rescue him in their flying car. Harry and Ron eventually make it to Hogwarts, but not without coming within a hair’s breadth of getting killed or expelled. They quickly fall into old patterns: they hang out with lovely young know-it-all Hermione (Emma Watson), they commence their battle of wills with the odious Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who now has the support of his obviously evil father Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), and they get into trouble.

There is trouble brewing, though: something is petrifying students, some creature that dwells in the Chamber of Secrets, a secret room hidden somewhere in the massive edifice of Hogwarts, which was created by the founder of the Slytherin house in an attempt to eliminate all “mud-bloods” (magicians born to Muggles) from the ranks of magicians. The suspicion as to who opened the Chamber and released, and now controls, the mysterious monster naturally falls on Harry, because he manages to be the first on the crime scene and looks suspicious, especially when it turns out he can talk to snakes in their own language. Harry, Ron, and Hermione must solve the mystery before students start getting killed; their investigation reveals deep secrets that involve the first opening of the Chamber fifty years before, a diary left by a long-forgotten student, and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the lovable groundskeeper at Hogwarts.

We have the usual crew of characters: in addition to those mentioned above, Albus Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris) is just as magisterial as he was before, although he looks a little older and more tired; Snape (Alan Rickman) is still as sneaky and dour; and McGonagall (Maggie Smith) isn’t as confident and hard-nosed. These changes make sense, because whatever is attacking students threatens to force the closure of the school, and might mean the return of Voldemort, the evil wizard who killed Harry’s parents and tried to come back in the first installment.

Added to the mix are one so-so character and one unforgettable one. Miriam Margoyles plays Professor Sprout, who teaches herbology and is educating her class on the use of the mandrake root, in a scene that evokes more than a few chuckles for anyone who’s read the John Donne poem “Song” (“get with child a mandrake root”—and I only read it because Ebert pointed out the reference). And Kenneth Branagh plays Gilderoy Lockhart, cashing in on all the scorn that British people apparently heap on him; he’s perfect as a big-headed, self-promoting blowhard, more talk than action, who would rather sell the students copies of his autobiography than teach them Defense Against the Dark Arts, which is supposed to be his area of expertise. He’s easily the most interesting character outside of Hagrid that the series has produced thus far.

Since this is the second installment, we can start to judge the principal actors on the basis of their improvement from the first movie. Sadly, they are not good actors. Daniel Radcliffe is passable but somewhat wooden as Harry, Emma Watson shows promise but is a little shrill as Hermione, and Rupert Grint grates on the nerves more and more as Ron. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy still snarls like the bad guy from a Hannah-Barbara cartoon, and I don’t expect him to get any better as the series plows on.

There were dramatic improvements in terms of special effects and blending the fantastic in with the real world. Gone are the too-perfect CGI effects of part 1; the digital elf Dobby looks great, the Quidditch game (which is exciting but goes on way too long and resembles nothing else but the extraneous pod-racing scene from Star Wars: Episode 1) now looks like it’s real people in real danger, and the capstone effect, which inhabits the last quarter of the film (I don’t want to give it away to those four or five other people who haven’t read the book), is terrifyingly good.

Despite the improvements, though, you still have to contend with the stately, respectful pace, which sometimes takes the enjoyment out of scenes that seem like they should have been more fun. The writer and director have not changed; Chris Columbus still doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the frantic joy of the books, and writer Steve Kloves seems like he is still happy to simply reproduce page after page accurately and antiseptically. The score by John Williams is just as overpowering as in the first one. The addition of cinematographer Roger Pratt (of 12 Monkeys and Batman fame) is a plus; perhaps he was behind the more seamless blending of the CGI with the real-life, and Hogwarts looks even more imposing and labyrinthine than before. But despite all of this, Alfonso Cuaron blew this film, and indeed the rest of the interminable series, out of the water with his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, because he is a better filmmaker than any of the others who tackled these thankless projects.