Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets Review
It is indicative of the Harry Potter brand that, unlike other films, this DVD does not summarise the plot on the back of the slipcase, implying that this undeniably famous franchise hardly needs describing anymore. Instead, space is given to listing the extras on this two-disc set. It is quite clear that this DVD release is not being targeted at casual buyers but those who have already seen the film or are aware of the story through the book. Certainly, this is one franchise grown large enough to avoid the need for description - the name Harry Potter now says it all.
However, just in case you're among the few who do not know the story of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, it is concerned with the titular hero's second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft And Wizardry. Harry Potter (Radcliffe) has returned to living with his relations, the Dursley family, over the summer break when he is visited by an house-elf, Dobby, who warns him not to return to Hogwarts. After a particularly disastrous dinner party organised by his uncle, Harry Potter and his owl Hedwig are locked and barred into their room. Thankfully for Harry, his friend Ron Weasley (Grint) arrives with his brothers in a flying car his father (Williams) had borrowed from his place of work, The Misuse Of Muggle Artifacts Office, and breaks Harry out of his temporary prison in Privet Drive, taking him to the Weasley house and on to the start of his second year at Hogwarts.
The school year begins slowly at first, Quidditch is played, world-famous author Gilderoy Lockhart (Branagh) is now master of Defence Against The Black Arts and old rivalries between Potter and Draco Malfoy (Felton) are re-ignited. Soon, however, a message appears written on the walls of Hogwarts, beside the petrified body of the caretaker's cat.
Soon, fear stalks the corridors of Hogwarts as events that occurred fifty years previously are enacted once again and students born of Muggle-parents, including Hermione Granger (Watson), have more to fear than most as the pure blood ethic of the founder of the house of Slytherin attempts to purify Hogwarts of those least deserving of the title of wizard.
JK Rowling's series of books, of which the fifth will be published in June 2003, have their faults but in terms of their overall impact against what they attempt to do, they are wholly successful. In a world where children's books tend to target a particular age, hoping to attract new readers as existing ones mature, the Harry Potter books attempt to grow with their audience, introducing new themes in as realistic a way as possible, whilst keeping the stories grounded in a magical environment, cleverly segmented into school years. What is also interesting is that they maintain a link with, and update at the same time, the Enid Blyton style of setting the story in public schools, secret societies and thrilling adventures, yet doing so in an environment where it can make sense, out of the real world, the way out of which is represented by Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross.
As this review is primarily concerned with the film and its adaptation of the original novel for the screen, it is unnecessary to highlight any faults that originated in the novel and which have been carried through to the film. Instead, there are plenty of problems the film generates on its own, primarily one that insists on anything that happens in the book also happens in the film. What JK Rowling does very effectively in her writing is to strip the story down to essentials, always driving the plot forward and only breaking stride to include the now traditional Quidditch match. Even the early scenes at the Dursley house in Privet Drive, often seen as an early diversion, serve to demonstrate Harry's desire to get back to his other life at Hogwarts. Sticking so closely to the book wasn't a problem for Philosopher's Stone as it was actually a relatively slim novel, certainly when compared to the rest of the series and it made a reasonably well-paced film just shy of 150mins.
On Chamber Of Secrets, however, being a larger and more involving book, Chris Columbus and Steve Kloves, as director and writer, respectively, should have taken the opportunity, as BBC Radio 4 did for radio, to adapt the novel for film, demonstrating that different mediums can treat exactly the same story in ways particular to how they are being read, watched or listened to. Columbus and Kloves, however, fail to rise to the challenge - this may be due to a lack of talent or simply a fear that they do not wish to mess up a successful franchise, thus risking their future careers. For all parties involved, however, this was completely the wrong decision. The result is that the film actually depends on a knowledge of the book to really make sense. For example, within the Chamber Of Secrets, the film has the Sorting Hat lying on the ground when something (remaining unmentioned so as to avoid giving away a spoiler) appears within it, with no reason given why this should occur. In the book and within the same scene, Harry is wearing the Sorting Hat, to whom he is internally asking for help and the result is the same, which makes sense where the film does not. Unfortunately, this is not the only example of poor decision-making as regards Chamber Of Secrets, with the result being that the film fails to the carry the story on its own terms. Instead, the film feels like a straight retelling of the book with random changes made to the story including the removal and rewriting of certain scenes that ought to have been left alone while others are changed without good reason.
Regarding the cast, the adult actors are as strong as ever, with Alan Rickman continuing to stand out in his portrayal of Professor Snape. Kenneth Branagh has been widely lauded for his role as Gilderoy Lockhart but, to me, he just fails to completely nail the role - too much of what he is trying to do is just so slightly tongue in cheek with not enough of the steely determination that another actor would have brought to role. Sadly, however, this was Richard Harris' last role before his death and the news that Michael Gambon will play Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, due in 2004, followed soon after Harris' death. It is unfortunate, but somehow unsurprising given the rate at which books and films are being produced, that Harris did not live to see his portrayal of Dumbledore in every film as, Rickman aside, he dominates the screen when he appears, even when playing in quite minor scenes, bringing a dignity and a warmth to the film perfectly in line with JK Rowling's description both of Dumbledore's character and his presence within Hogwarts. As for Jason Isaacs, he is great in the role of Lucius Malfoy, all strutting arrogance and intolerance, wearing a shoulder-length white wig and performing magic through the use of his cane. As Mr and Mrs Weasley, Julie Walters and Mark Williams do an excellent job as the kind of magicians whose cluttered lives are completely opposite to the demand for purity exhibited by Isaacs' Malfoy, whose clash with the Weasleys provides an early highlight.
The younger actors have, by this film, adapted to their roles with Daniel Radcliffe getting Harry Potter's uncertainty spot on. Rupert Grint is handling the comedy sidekick role well as Ron Weasley but Emma Watson seems to be struggling slightly as Hermione Granger, which I'm sure is not her fault - it just seems that Granger is the minor player in the Potter/Weasley/Granger friendship. Tom Felton continues to do a great job as Draco Malfoy, proving to be more of a villain in the two stories to date than the shadowy presence of Lord Voldemort and use of the pause button every time Malfoy gets his comeuppance will show some fantastic facial expressions. The CGI Dobby, however, is what that Binks creation is to Star Wars, a lazy attempt to animate the house-elf character that could have been greatly improved using puppetry and clever direction as opposed to CG animation.
Speaking of effects, ILM do a rather better job than Sony Pictures Imageworks did on Philosopher's Stone with both the visual effects and character creation noticeably better. As poor as Dobby is as a character, the animation is significantly improved over the troll in Philosopher's Stone and the Quidditch here is certainly not as embarrassingly bad as it was in the first film.
Finally, the one major problem that really does stem from Chris Columbus' involvement, and one that Philosopher's Stone also suffered from, is that, for a film about a wizard, Chamber Of Secrets is simply not particularly magical. From the way that Columbus lets his camera linger on magical items - the look of wonder on Harry Potter's face as he stares at a pair of magical knitting needles belies the fact that he's just spent a year at a school for wizards where such events should be commonplace - to the feeling that as the director, Columbus just isn't cut out for greatness. Sure, he is competent but his direction is so bland that it doesn't get in the way of the experience. As the plot is no longer necessary to describe the DVD, the director would appear to also be irrelevant within the experience.
The film has been transferred anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks great. Both the Harry Potter films tend to exaggerate the natural appearances of objects so that the external scenes in daylight are bright and colourful whilst the scenes at night are really quite dark with persistent moonlight. The effect is entirely unnatural but works given the magical setting and the locations used for Hogwarts work to stunning effect.
There are thirty-seven chapter stops.
As opposed to the quality of the picture, the English 5.1 EX soundtrack is acceptable but not particularly outstanding. The Quidditch match is once again the audio highlight as it is the one time the camera and, therefore, the soundtrack is particularly mobile but otherwise, with Chamber Of Secrets being quite focused on moving forward through dialogue, the soundtrack is predominantly static.
Subtitles are available in English, English for the Hard Of Hearing and Arabic.
As with Philosopher's Stone, the extras are still aimed at children but have avoided the rewards system of the DVD release of Philosopher's Stone
Cast And Crew: This contains three still images listing the major cast and crew members of the film.
Theatrical Trailer (2m08s, 2.35:1 Anamorphic, Dolby ProLogic Surround Sound): This is a faithful summary of the events of the film, neither giving away too much nor offering too little. If there is one problem, it is that it highlights too many of the comedy moments with Ron Weasley (the flying car, the howler and Errol, Weasley's clumsy owl) rather than the darker and more magical aspects of the film.
Year One At Hogwarts (1m57s, 2.35:1 Anamorphic, Dolby ProLogic Surround Sound): This could have been a good recap of Harry Potter's first year at Hogwarts but this is only the trailer for Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone with a single line at the end to indicate that it has been updated for Chamber Of Secrets.
Deleted Scenes (17m00s, 2.35 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This feature includes nineteen deleted scenes from footage that was trimmed to reduce running time, even where the longer version lasts a few seconds more, to longer scenes, which were originally in the book, then subsequently filmed but which did not make the final cut. Very few of these deleted scenes would have added much to the film and there is little
Conversation with JK Rowling and Steve Kloves (16m12s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Mono): This is an interview with the writer of the original novels and the scriptwriter for the films.
Dumbledore's Office: This includes two sub-sections Build a Scene (16m41s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo) and Tour Of The Office (1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo). Both of these are features based on Dumbledore's Office but where the former is a behind-the-scenes look at the design and build of the sets used in the film whereas the latter is a virtual tour of the office allowing items with it to be highlighted and examined.
Interviews With Students, Professors And More: This feature includes interviews with the actors and actresses regarding their work on the film, their role, favourite scenes, etc.
Gallery Of Production Sketches: This includes a large number of sketches from the production design, subdivided into sections based on the content of the images.
Lockhart's Classroom This is a very slight but lighthearted section offering a photo gallery, recommended reading and a list of Lockhart's certificates, all in keeping with the tone of the film.
Spellcaster Knowledge: This extra uses clips from the film in a quiz to check how well the viewer knows the effect of each spell.
Activities: This extra contains four activities based on the film:
- The Chamber Challenge: This is a quiz based on putting items in order. So, for example, one challenge would be to list in order the four victims of the curse of the Chamber Of Secrets. The aim of the game is to reach the bathroom where Moaning Myrtle lives.
- The Forbidden Forest Challenge: Like 3D Deathchase on the ZX Spectrum but with less control, this is a driving game through the Forbidden Forest to escape Aragog's spiders who are poised to attack
- Colin's Darkroom: This offers the viewer an opportunity to browse a large number of publicity stills and view them in a montage
- Tour Diagon Alley As with the tour through Dumbledore's Office, this is a virtual tour of the shops where Harry Potter must go at the start of every school year to purchase the magical equipment he needs - it's a very slight but harmless activity.
Game Preview: This extra allows the view to watch six video clips from EA's Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets video game. Each clip is no more than thirty seconds in length but there is no 'play all' option.
I disagree completely with the standard opinion that this is a better film than the first. Sure, Chamber Of Secrets is a darker, more frightening film than Philosopher's Stone and it does demonstrate the young cast are becoming more able in their roles but Columbus and Kloves stuck too doggedly to their source text and clumsily adapted Harry Potter's internal voice to action scenes that fail to make complete sense. Where Philosopher's Stone got away with this due to its shorter length, Chamber Of Secrets does not and the adaptation simply isn't daring enough to be able to hide this basic fault.
Frankly, though, what does it matter. Unless the film really was terrible, which it was never likely to be - Columbus is never daring but never really dumb either - it would still be devoured by a audience of children and adults who can't get enough of Harry Potter. So far then, the law of diminishing returns holds true even with Harry Potter. Let's see if a different director can turn the tide with Prisoner Of Azkaban.