The second installment in the series of films based on J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter books is smoother and more confident (as well as slightly longer and happily less loud) than the first. Still, under Chris Columbus’ workmanlike but uninspired direction, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” emerges as more dutiful than enchanting. With its dogged fidelity to its source and its handsome physical production, it should more than satisfy initiates, who will be happy once more to see their favorites transferred so carefully to celluloid. Like the initial picture, however, this one is terribly episodic and lacking the spark of imagination that might have made it an exhilarating treat, either for the already converted or for newcomers. Once more it resembles 1985’s “Young Sherlock Holmes,” which Columbus wrote–and that’s not intended as a compliment.
“The Chamber of Secrets” recounts the celebrated young sorcerer-in-training’s sophomore year at Hogwarts Academy, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and pals Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) become embroiled in a dangerous search for a hidden area that supposedly houses a monster which torments poor Potter via subconscious messages while literally petrifying a succession of unlucky students. Meanwhile Potter and friends continue to be targets of the snooty Draco Malfoy (Tom Fenton), who–following the lead of his supercilious father Lucius (Jason Isaacs), new to the narrative–believes that the school should be cleansed of all who are not of pure-wizard stock; the same (rather ugly) blood prejudice, as it happens, also marked the thought of Salazar Slytherin, the co-founder of the school who built the rumored- about secret chamber. The resolution of the threat brings Harry into touch with the spirit of a former student named Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson), who converses with our hero through the mechanism of a magical old diary, and with a ghost called Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), who’s haunted the place ever since she was killed during the monster’s last rampage five decades before. There are also a couple of new teachers on board: Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), a matronly botanist, and Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), the Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor–a foppish self-promoter who proves decidedly inept when called upon to prove his mettle. Of course many of the old staff are on hand, too: the late Richard Harris returns as the ethereal, avuncular Dumbledore (his last performance), Maggie Smith as spinsterish McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as the friendly giant Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as the sinister Snape. (It must be said, though, that while the first three have ample screen time, Rickman does little more than a cameo.)
What works best in “Chamber” is the physical production, which is even more impressive than the first time around. Hogwarts looks great (Dumbledore’s high-roofed office, which we see for the first time, is simply beautiful). The special effects are better, too: there’s a flying car (not Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, thank heaven) that’s pretty cool, and a quidditch match that’s much more convincing (if no more comprehensible) than in the initial installment. Creatures abound as well. A bunch of giant spiders are creepily effective (though they’re likely to scare the pants off younger children), and a huge snake-cum-dragon (actually a mythic basilisk, with which Harry must do battle, St. George-style, at the close) would have made Ray Harryhausen proud–though it too is likely to frighten toddlers something fierce. (They’re not likely to take to the sight of a comatose cat hanging from a hook, either.) Some CGI fowl are nifty creations, too. Less successful, unfortunately, is a supposedly cute computer-generated elf called Dobby, whose supposedly whimsical sniveling is given far too much screen time (he also pounds himself repeatedly in a fashion that’s too brutal to be amusing). In fact Dobby is so irritating that you might suspect he was Jar Jar Binks’ younger brother, and one can only hope this is his sole appearance in the series. (Die-hard fans will know that for sure, of course.)
The human cast, meanwhile, does everything expected of them. The three stars have all grown a bit since the last picture, and they seem to have gained confidence in their roles, too. Radcliffe is nicely laid-back. Watson, unfortunately, has less to do than might have been hoped–she spends too much of the footage either stiff as a board or wearing an unflattering cat’s mask (you’ll see why in due course). The slack is taken up by the rubber-faced Grint, who once again steals many scenes by adeptly playing the frightened tagalong–at points he’s like a young, red-haired Lou Costello. The oldsters do their part, too. Branagh, despite his modest stature, casts an extravagant figure as the foolishly smug Lockhart (though his exact place in the plot near the close isn’t made clear), and the returnees are all fine. (One small observation. The recent death of Harris causes one to look closely at him as he gives his final performance, and one can’t help but notice how fragile and pale he appears. It’s also a mite creepy that a major scene has him discourse learnedly on the phoenix, which–as he informs us—-perishes by fire only to be reborn from the ashes. The effect is a mite chilling.)
As was true a year ago, “Harry Potter” will probably please aficionados of the books–who apparently remain devoted to the character–and from the standpoint of pure craft it’s a thoroughly professional piece of work. Despite its theme, though, it resolutely lacks magic except in purely visual terms. Under the circumstances the final sequence–which consists of several rounds of applause given by characters to one another–seems pretty shameless. It’s a tactic (used in the original “Star Wars,” for instance) to drum up enthusiasm in the audience before they leave the theatre, but in this case it doesn’t seem appropriate. It’s like a beseeching curtain call at a mediocre show; the desired response may be forthcoming, but it’s not really earned.