In my last Harry Potter review, I outlined some problems with the early days of the series while it was finding its feet. They were innocuous issues, sure, and the film as a whole was a perfectly acceptable adaptation. I regret to report that this subsequent film doesn’t particularly fix the issues, in fact, it may make them worse.
It is telling that the series took on a significantly different tone and direction in the following instalments, along with changing the man behind the camera. Christopher Columbus (not that one) helmed both Philosopher’s Stone and this film but would be replaced by the time Prisoner of Azkaban rolled around.
Columbus was a safe pair of hands to start the fledgeling film series. Known primarily to casual movie fans for writing both Gremlins and The Goonies, as well as directing the first two Home Alone films; so, while he’s by no means an auteur, he’s experienced in making films with a wide audience in mind; so it’s easy to see why he was the choice to start this new big-money franchise.
After his confrontation with Lord Voldemort at the end of his first year, Harry returns to Hogwarts, despite warnings from house-elf Dobby. He’s soon dragged into another mystery when the mythical ‘Chamber of Secrets’ is opened.
Again, it is exceedingly difficult to boil down a Harry Potter film into a brief paragraph, as there are many different foibles and twists along the way, but the above is probably as close, and as brief as I’m going to get.
In my Harry Potter ranking from last year (which can be found here, thank you for asking) I said that Chamber of Secrets was the worst of the main Harry Potter series, and my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed.
The first problem this film has is its length. It’s far too long for this early in the franchise. To put things into perspective, the longest book in the series (Order of the Phoenix) is much shorter as a film than this one is. There’s just no reason for it to be as long as it is. It feels padded, and as a film aimed at a family audience, you don’t want that. A long film can get boring for younger audiences, and that word shouldn’t come anywhere near Harry Potter.
Another problem is the direction. It hasn’t moved anywhere from the last film. Just when it needed to branch out and forge its own identity, it instead digs in and becomes a little stale as a result.
The acting from the youngsters hasn’t improved since last time out either. In fact, it may have regressed. They seem a bit more wooden and a little lost in front of the camera, all things considered. Even the adult performers have lost a bit of sparkle in this instalment, struggling to make the film more interesting.
That being said, Richard Harris is still wonderful as Dumbledore. His eyes sparkle with charm, and despite his visible frailty, he delivers another wonderful performance, in what would be his farewell role, as he sadly passed away not long after, even though he hoped to continue in the role right up to the end.
Although I believe this to be the worst film in the series, it is still perfectly serviceable as an adaptation. It isn’t the kind of adaptation that would derail, or even slow down, a franchise. It’s just a weaker film when compared to the rest.
It’s a little frustrating as the story is an interesting one, and lets us in on a little bit more Hogwarts-based lore. Specifically, it elaborates on the Hogwarts founders and their opinions on the magical world at large and thus sheds more light on why Slytherin and Gryffindor are long-time enemies.
There are highlights in the film, of course. The Aragog sequence (while terrible for an arachnophobe like me) is very impressive and unnerving, and the Ford Anglia flight is classic Harry Potter magic. But overall, the film is padded and yet somehow still thinly-spread. It’s not bad, just very disappointing; and looked at in hindsight with the knowledge of what the series could be, it’s tone is far too light for the world and the story it’s telling.
The light tone might be something to do with Columbus, who, as we said, has a background in family entertainment, but these stories, despite ostensibly being for kids, have a lot of teeth. There’s some dark stuff in the first two stories, just as much as the later stories do, and the lighter tone does these moments no favours whatsoever.
All in all then, while I definitely wouldn’t recommend skipping it if you were planning a re-watch, Chamber of Secrets is a disappointing affair. Padded, stilted, and a little toothless, it’s a good thing the series decided to part company with Mr Columbus from here on in, as he just didn’t end up being as good a fit as he once seemed. There would be much better times ahead for this magical franchise.