Retro Reviews are frequent looks back at films I've already seen to conclude whether or not they still hold up, taking into consideration both the time period and circumstances during which they were made and how they work in the modern day to offer a more in-depth exploration of the film itself than those found in my standard first-time reviews.
Just a year after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone hit theaters, Chamber of Secrets arrived, free of the burden of launching the film franchise. Sorcerer's Stone had a lot of ground to cover in introducing the Wizarding World to audiences, and thankfully it satisfied many book readers and appealed to many non-book readers to get the franchise started on footing that, while not entirely perfect, remained solid.
In contrast to its predecessor, Chamber of Secrets is a much more confident film, one that immediately feels as comfortable with itself as the returning actors do slipping back into their characters. Harry's return to Hogwarts is just as welcoming for viewers as it is for the Boy Who Lived himself, and the film - just like the book - benefits from being able to hit the ground running now that so many core concepts are in place and characters are established.
Whereas the first film had elements that were "scary," such as the very notion of Lord Voldemort's existence, the sense of danger was still very restrained, particularly when put up against some of the later films. Chamber is really the film that starts pushing the idea that there's more to fear in this world than Dark Wizards and that the existence of magic doesn't mean safety is a guarantee. It's not an overtly grim film by any means and (appropriately) doesn't deal in death yet, but it's a far more mature story than what came before, a natural next step along Harry's journey that starts to bridge the gap between the wide-eyed innocence of these younger years and the darker aspects of the ones that followed.
Continuing along in my trip down memory lane with the films in advance of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I invite you to come along with me again as I reopen the Chamber of Secrets and sort out whether what's contained within still holds up nearly 14 years later. Let's find out!
First off, one of the things I noted in my review of the first film was that much of the child acting was occasionally weak, underscored by some cringeworthy line delivery and the general awkwardness that came out of first-timers being thrust into the spotlight. Fortunately, the kids here - primarily the main trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint - feel more accustomed to their roles this time around, and while a few of them still have a long way to go in their personal development as actors across the series as a whole, there's far less stilted work present here than before, making it a much easier film to watch just based on their performances. They all look older, their voices are changing, and the feeling of watching them grow as actors pairs pretty well with the fact we're also watching their characters grow up.
Most of the adult cast reappear here, including Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, and Richard Harris, whose second turn as Dumbledore would sadly be his last before his passing shortly before the film itself was released, and they all continue to prove valuable assets to the franchise even if the focus remains solely on the kids' adventures this early on. There's really no weak link in the chain, and, in fact, some of the best work from the adult cast comes in the form of a handful of newcomers.
Series stalwarts Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy are introduced in this film, portrayed by Mark Williams and Jason Isaacs respectively, and both do solid work as the two polar opposite patriarchs despite having, unsurprisingly, little to do here compared to down the line. Williams captures the lovable charm of Arthur while Isaacs more than exudes the greasy hubris that makes Lucius so easy to hate, the spot-on casting of both once again demonstrating just how great the franchise as a whole was in bringing J. K. Rowling's characters from page to screen.
Of course, it's Kenneth Branagh's smarmy Gilderoy Lockhart that steals the show here anytime he's on screen, and if there’s a downside to the character's presence here, it’s simply that Branagh is so good that it’s disappointing he never showed up again in the films, something which happens during a memorable chapter in Order of the Phoenix. The egomania, the vanity, the narcissism... It's all captured here, and Branagh's clearly having so much fun in the role that it's hard not to crack a smile whenever he's around.
Lockhart brings a lot of levity to the film, which as a whole is also a lot funnier than the first adventure. Despite its aforementioned darker nature, Chamber thrives on being able to balance it with humor without tilting too far in either direction and undermining the other as a result, and there are a lot of solid moments - like a visual gag involving Lockhart vanishing the bones from Harry's arm or Arthur excitedly asking the boys about how the flying Ford Anglia worked instead of scolding them like his wife expected - that fans will have a hard time forgetting. Rowling never tended to force jokes into the books where they don't belong, and it's to the film franchise's credit that everyone involved managed to carry that over, wisely using humor as a tool instead of cramming it in as a crutch in a misguided effort to make the films "more appealing."
It's also to Chamber's credit that it didn't lose the element of keeping Harry's world wondrous. Despite revisiting many places we saw in the first film, such as Diagon Alley or Hogwarts, there are still so many little details packed into every corner that it's just as exciting to see them again along with Harry as it was the first time around. Sorcerer's Stone established the world, and Chamber does an even better job expanding it, introducing important franchise elements like Polyjuice Potion, the Floo network, Azkaban, the Whomping Willow, and the Ministry of Magic in a digestible manner without ever feeling overwhelming, all while taking us to new places like Knockturn Alley and The Burrow that are just as engaging as the sights we've seen before.
One thing I discussed in my review for the first film was the idea that many people I know remain unhappy with the films for what they cut from the books, and for purists, Chamber of Secrets is likely the only other film besides Sorcerer's Stone that could possibly come close to satisfying them. Outside of a few trivial changes, like the excision of Professor Binns entirely, the continued absence of Peeves the Poltergeist, or the removal of anything to do with Valentine's Day, nothing "major" is lost in translation save Nearly Headless Nick's Deathday Party, which is undoubtedly a wise cut in retrospect considering the fact that Nick himself never appears again after this film.
I described Sorcerer's Stone as a film that threw everything at the wall to see what stuck, and Chamber of Secrets is somewhat similar. This is the last time characters like Nick, Oliver Wood, or Lee Jordan appear in the series, and even other recurring book characters are introduced here never to be seen again, like Colin Creevey, or disappear only until the very end of the franchise, like Professor Sprout and Dobby. In terms of continuity from a book reader's perspective, it's a bit frustrating to see many of these characters inexplicably vanish from the series, but I can still see why many of them were cut going forward, as it helped streamline future films thanks to the fact most weren't characters the general audience would miss or even notice were gone. Again, for purists, this is really their last big chance to see the books translated pretty faithfully, with the next film, Prisoner of Azkaban, really serving as the turning point in which massive liberties began to be taken.
Revisiting Sorcerer's Stone reminded me just how heavily the CGI effects have dated that film, and mercifully Chamber of Secrets doesn't suffer quite the same fate. Quidditch still isn't quite there yet, but other CGI creations, like the basilisk and Dobby, look much, much better than, say, the troll from the first film despite the two films being released only a year apart. Some of the effects work still shows its age, sure, but it's much more pleasing to look at simply for not coming off as cheap as some of the work in Sorcerer's Stone, and as such, Chamber doesn't feel anywhere near as incredibly dated right off the bat as its predecessor. It's backed up, too, by some great practical effects work, including a number of shots involving the basilisk and Aragog the spider, which is always something I value in a film that could've very easily gone with taking the easy way out in making every single thing it could a CGI effect.
As always, the production design remains incredible all around save a few odd rough spots. One notable thing that has always bugged me is during the scene in which Lockhart attempts to mend Harry's broken arm in the Quidditch pitch: The background is so painfully jarring, clearly a painting on a static backdrop that simply doesn't work for me. Fortunately, corner-cutting things like that in this film - and throughout the series, for that matter - are incredibly rare, but it should be noted nonetheless; once you see it, it's hard to unsee, and it's the only thing that feels second-rate about the film.
In terms of narrative, I've always liked Chamber of Secrets as a book more than Sorcerer's Stone, and that stands true in talking about the films as well. It's a more propulsive adventure, and one with a mystery that's allowed to play out smoothly, never too complicated, I have to imagine, for people who haven't read the book. Oddly, Chamber is the longest movie of the whole series despite being the second shortest book, and while that's an issue I'll get into with later films, the pacing here still clicks along, with little that feels like it could've been excised considering the crucial relationship building and the simple fact that many little things introduced here in scenes that seem like they could've been cut to anyone without knowledge of future stories, like the Polyjuice stuff, have incredible relevance later on.
Lastly, I once again can't wrap this up without bringing up John Williams' work. He more than delivers here, and introduces to the series one of my favorite pieces in the franchise, Fawkes' theme, which I'm sore remained a one-off theme rather than a continuing staple for the phoenix in his future appearances. Taken as a whole, it's not my favorite score from Williams' three films or even the overall series itself, but it's vital nonetheless in giving the film its personality, and demonstrates yet again just how important the maestro was in helping establish this universe.
As I mentioned at the top of this review, Chamber of Secrets is a much more comfortable film, and one that carries the charms over from its predecessor while learning from its weaknesses in an effort to refine itself. Though it's pretty faithful to the book, it's still far from my personal favorite film in the series, but that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy every minute of revisiting these characters like old friends, or get goosebumps when Hagrid returns to Hogwarts at the end of the film, John Williams' score soars, and we leave Harry and all his friends one last time at the peak of their childhood days, unaware of the real darkness to come, the simplest era of their lives having come to a close. Even at its most excessive, it's still a fun watch; not the best the franchise has to offer, but a notable step up from what came before that admirably expanded the world and set the stage for the next (and better) era of the franchise.
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