Draco: Why are you wearing glasses?
You: I.. um.. for reading this review?
This film is based on J. K. Rowling’s 1998 novel of the same name, and both are the second installment of their medium from the Harry Potter franchise.
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: J.K. Rowling (novel), Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris
Release Date: November 15, 2002
Run time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Spending the summer with the Dursleys, Harry Potter meets Dobby, a house-elf who warns him that it is dangerous to return to Hogwarts. Dobby sabotages an important dinner for the Dursleys, who lock up Harry to prevent his return to Hogwarts. Harry’s friend Ron Weasley and his brothers Fred and George rescue him in their father‘s flying Ford Anglia.
In Diagon Alley, Harry and the Weasley family are joined by Hermione Granger at a book-signing by Gilderoy Lockhart, Hogwarts’ new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Confronted by Draco Malfoy, Harry notices Malfoy’s father, Lucius, slip a book into Ginny Weasley‘s cauldron. When Harry and Ron are blocked from entering Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at London King’s Cross railway station, they take the flying car to Hogwarts; after crashing into the Whomping Willow breaking Ron’s wand, they receive detention.
In detention, Harry hears a strange voice and later finds caretaker Argus Filch‘s cat, Mrs Norris, petrified beside a message written in blood: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened, enemies of the heir… beware.” Professor McGonagall explains that one of Hogwarts’ founders, Salazar Slytherin, supposedly constructed a secret Chamber containing a monster that only his heir can control, capable of purging the school of Muggle-born students. Suspecting that Malfoy is the heir, Harry, Ron, and Hermione plan to question him while disguised, using forbidden polyjuice potion, which they brew in a disused bathroom haunted by a ghost called Moaning Myrtle.
During a Quidditch game, Harry’s arm is broken by a rogue Bludger. Dobby visits him in the infirmary and reveals that he closed the barrier to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and made the Bludger chase Harry to force him to leave the school. He also reveals that the Chamber had been opened in the past. When Harry communicates with a snake, the school believes he is the heir. Disguised as two of Malfoy’s friends, Harry and Ron learn he is not the heir, but come to know that his father had told him that a Muggle-born girl died when the Chamber was last opened. Harry finds an enchanted diary owned by former student Tom Riddle, who opened the Chamber and blamed Rubeus Hagrid, leading to his expulsion. When the diary is stolen and Hermione is petrified, Harry and Ron question Hagrid. Professor Dumbledore, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, and Lucius arrive to take Hagrid to Azkaban, but he discreetly tells the boys to “follow the spiders”. In the Forbidden Forest, Harry and Ron meet Hagrid’s giant pet spider, Aragog, who reveals Hagrid’s innocence and provides a clue about the Chamber’s monster.
A book page in Hermione’s hand identifies the monster as a basilisk, a giant serpent that kills people who make direct eye contact with it; the petrified victims only saw it indirectly. The school staff learns Ginny has been taken into the Chamber, and nominate Lockhart to save her. Harry and Ron find Lockhart preparing to flee, exposing him as a fraud. Deducing that Myrtle was the Muggle-born girl that the basilisk killed, they find the Chamber’s entrance in the bathroom she haunts. Once inside, Lockhart tries to stop Harry and Ron by using a memory charm, but because he seized Ron’s broken wand, the spell backfires, erasing Lockhart’s memory and causing a cave-in which separates Harry from Ron and Lockhart.
Harry enters the Chamber alone and finds Ginny unconscious, guarded by Riddle. Riddle reveals that he used the diary to manipulate Ginny into reopening the Chamber, and that he is Slytherin’s heir and Voldemort’s younger self. After Harry expresses his loyalty to Dumbledore, the latter’s pet phoenix Fawkes arrives with the Sorting Hat, causing Riddle to summon the basilisk. Fawkes blinds the basilisk, and the Sorting Hat produces the Sword of Gryffindor, with which Harry battles the basilisk. After a struggle, he kills it but is poisoned by one of its fangs.
Despite his injury, Harry stabs the diary with the basilisk fang, destroying Riddle and reviving Ginny. Fawkes’ tears heal Harry, and he returns to Hogwarts with his friends and a baffled Lockhart, earning Dumbledore’s praise and Hagrid’s release. Harry accuses Lucius, Dobby’s master, of planting the diary in Ginny’s cauldron, and tricks him into freeing Dobby. The basilisk’s victims are healed, Hermione reunites with Harry and Ron, and Hagrid is released from Azkaban.
This beloved modern classic is the second installment from the film franchise, and while I think the movie is good, I do not think it quite measures up to The Sorcerer’s Stone. It felt too long and it lacks some of the stronger emotional beats that The Sorcerer’s Stone provides.
That is not to say that the movie lacks its positive points. The Chamber of Secrets is a much wider exploration of the wizarding world and its history than the first film. The characters begin to actually use spells. We learn about wizarding history, the founding of Hogwarts, and a terrible event from the schools’ past. We meet a new ghost inside the castle, Draco Malfoy’s father, another intelligent humanoid species (house elfs), the Minister of Magic, and the famous new Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Maybe most importantly, we get to see the inside of the Weasley home. Rather than the story feeling limited to a magical boarding school, it begins to grow into a fully formed Wizarding World.
On the topic of the new characters we meet, Kenneth Branagh as the pompous and vain Gilderoy Lockhart was an unexpectedly excellent choice. The famous Shakespearean actor and director brought a lot of fun and frivolity to a role which provided the film with some much needed and otherwise deficient levity. Jason Isaacs was the perfect choice to play Draco Malfoy’s father, Lucius. Like his son, the elder Malfoy is portrayed as rich, sneering, and ultimately somewhat impotent (his scheme was defeated by betrayal from his own house servant and a twelve year old.) Speaking of the house servant, this film introduces Dobby, the House Elf, and even twenty years later I remain impressed by the animation work which brings the character to life.
In fact, probably the greatest accomplishment of The Chamber of Secrets is its continued demonstration of the franchise’s excellence in visual effects. In addition to Dobby, the basilisk confrontation is well done visually even by modern standards, as was the confrontation in the Forbidden Forest with Aragog the spider and his enormous descendants, and Harry’s boneless arm scene can still elicit a genuine cringe. The set designs are extraordinary. The Hogwarts Castle itself feels larger and more like a castle than it did in the first film. Over and over, the filmmakers manage to blend animation, practical effects, costuming, and set design quite seamlessly and impressively. To think that the movie was released twenty years ago is unbelievable.
The two major themes of the movie are that prejudice is bad and that we should be careful in evaluating the sources of information we trust. The first of the themes takes place in two forms. First, we learn about a wizard prejudice against “muggle borns” by “pure bloods.” Emma Watson gets to deliver probably the first dramatic monologue of her career while explaining to Harry and the audience what the slur “mud blood” means and why its use is vile, and she does a great job. The second prejudice on display in the movie is the wizard prejudice against non-humans, such as the house-elf, Dobby. His situation is horrendous, but it is presented with enough comedy as to make it digestible for a young audience. The messaging at times felt a little too on the nose, and over the top, as an adult viewer, but it felt just right when considering the intended audience.
The film’s focus on trustworthy sources is demonstrated through the character of Lockhart. The new teacher, who is famous owing to his alleged magical exploits, turns out to be a fraud. Dumbledore seems to have hired him for the primary purpose of teaching his students to be skeptical of authority. He might also have hoped that those students could then relay that skepticism to their fawning mothers when they return home. Harry learns the lesson of not trusting sources, much more personally, through the mechanism of interacting with Tom Riddle’s diary. Riddle, who we learn is a young Voldemort, lies to Harry and the rest of the world about Hagrid and is believed because nobody bothered to apply a sufficient amount of scrutiny to the situation. Harry’s innate skepticism proves to be Hagrid’s salvation, as it leads Harry and his friends to uncover the truth and to rescue the wrongly accused Hagrid from wizard prison. Unlike the theme of opposing prejudice, the secondary theme of mistrusting authority is much more subtly given. A younger viewer might miss the point entirely due to the fact that Rowling’s story presents the false sources as obviously untrustworthy. Lockhart comes across as a fraud on first sight to anyone not taken in by his looks. Riddle’s diary is an inherently shady magical object. Not all false sources of information as so obvious.
(Spoiler alter: Rowling’s series is not remotely done hammering on this theme.)
The movie did have some problems. My primary gripe was that I did not connect with protagonist Harry’s central emotional struggle. Harry’s big worry as the film progresses is that he might be Dark Wizard-ish himself. He learns that parselmouth (“snake language”) is a Slytherin trait. He asks the Sorting Hat if it made a mistake putting him in Gryffindor. The problem with that issue, for the audience, is that we know he is not a bad guy. Harry does nothing to make that a concern for the audience. Maybe had Harry used snake language to intentionally cause harm to someone, it might have given us some room to join him in his doubt, but as that did not happen, we knew he is pure of heart. The real struggle Harry deals with in the film is some mistrust from his classmates but that is not played up to any great effect as his close friends, and Dumbledore, never abandon him even for a minute.
I have a couple of other critiques of the story-telling. Other than in the car rescue, Ron is largely sidelined to the comic relief role. That undercuts his character development when looking at the series as a whole. Ron’s purpose as a central character is to be the friend in the group who is knowledgeable about the world in ways his two muggle-raised friends are not. He is also supposed to occasionally surprise with his own heroics and cleverness. The Chamber of Secrets does not handle Ron particularly well in those respects.
The primary beneficiary of Ron’s demotion is Hermione. Instead of Ron explaining to Harry and Hermione what “mud blood” means, and why hearing Draco say it led to him attacking Draco, Hermione takes Ron’s role as “explainer of wizarding things” and gives a monologue on it. She does this again when explaining to Harry that hearing voices is bad even among wizards. Taking Ron’s knowledge and putting it in Hermione’s head takes from her character arc as well. Instead of giving her a place to learn, grow, and benefit from her friendships, she has already done a lot of her growth off screen. Curing some of these small continuity errors would have benefited the character arcs of Harry’s two best friends within the movie and later in the series.
Where is Ron’s “Wizard’s Chess” moment in this movie?
The slow-pacing of the movie is a function of the source material. The Chamber of Secrets is a mystery novel. Harry is the twelve year old sleuth trying to solve a fifty year old mystery. The problem with the film was that the mystery needed to be dragged out for nearly three hours in order to provide the necessary space for an info-dump about the wizarding world that will be relevant in later movies. I would not say I ever hit a point of boredom but I definitely wanted the movie to get on with it at a few moments.
The Chamber of Secrets was Richard Harris’s last appearance as Dumbledore. He passed away at the age of 72, shortly before this movie was released in theaters. I will forever wonder how he would have approached Dumbledore in later movies. He was masterful and faithful to the character from the books in the first two films, delivering a warm, whimsical, and grandfatherly Albus Dumbledore. What would that have looked like in later films as the circumstances grew more dangerous and dire?
Overall, the movie is good, though it is a bit too long. The visual effects were amazing at the time and still hold up well even today. The new characters were fun. well-cast, and entertaining, and the young stars of the film delivered great performances. I just wish Harry’s emotional conflict had been more relatable and that Ron had been given more to do.