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Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Chris Columbus
Written by:
Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J.K. Rowling
Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Running time:
161 minutes
Rated PG
 " of the years best films"
So, you wish to know if Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is as good as the first Harry Potter movie. Is it as charming, visually gratifying, faithful to filthy-rich author J.K. Rowling's inescapable books? Well, that'd be yep times four, as it's definitely an enchanting spectacular for Potter fans anxious to ride the Hogwarts Express toward a new year of magic and mischief.

Let us also note that the project, at 161 minutes in length, never lags or falters. It uses its running time to tell a story, not just propelling the audience from one action scene to another. Once again, people's director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and reliable screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) cleave very tightly to Rowling's narrative, cutting loose only to compress her character-rich exposition or gussy up her trim little action scenes, without a glitch. If there is a problematic issue, it is that where Rowling’s novel contains a great deal of wit, this film is a bit light on humor.

That said, from the soaring opening notes of John Williams' magnificent score (largely reprised from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, adapted here by William Ross, and more deft and spellbinding than Howard Shore's award-winning Lord of the Rings music), the magic is back. We descend upon a ghastly prefab subdivision (à la Time Bandits) to find Dickensian orphan and fledgling wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, in yet another carefully restrained, subtle performance) held hostage by his grotesque, Roald Dahl-esque foster family (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling). Like many a second-year student, all he wants to do is return to his true home, in this case the Chocolate Factory that is Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Enter Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones, CG-animated as this film's Jar Jar Binks or Gollum), a grody little house elf who appears very inconveniently in Harry's spartan bedroom to warn him that he mustn't return to Hogwarts or he'll be doomed (as if). Imagine a Martin Short clone, incessantly referring to himself in the third person, informing you that he's purloined all the letters sent to you by your friends so as to ensure your loneliness and detachment from your alma mater. You'd beat the crap out of him, right? Well, Harry's not the belligerent sort, and besides, Dobby illustrates a perverse predilection for self-abuse, so the message is the point: Grave--if logistically confounding--danger is afoot.

After narrowly escaping with earnest friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in Ron's dad's flying, turquoise Ford Anglia, Harry's adventure begins. As with any series, neophytes may find themselves grasping desperately for handles as characters and concepts whiz past, but brief stops at the funky, magical Weasley abode the Burrow (well inhabited by Billy Elliot's Julie Walters, 101 Dalmatians' Mark Williams and--in a limited but pivotal role--young Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley) plus the creepy, gothed-out Knockturn Alley keep both Harry and us on our toes. Immediately thereafter, at the magical market Diagon Alley, many key players light up the screen, including Hogwarts' coarse, lovable groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane,), Harry's decreasingly presumptuous cohort Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, in another take charge, spark plug performance) and the wildly narcissistic author and professor Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, who'd gleefully upstage God. Branagh is a treasure here. He seems to be having the time of his life ). Nasty folk also ring in the new school year, including little Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his malevolent dad, Lucius (Jason Isaacs), who may have summoned the unspeakable evil of Dobby's warning.

Once at Hogwarts, that grand edifice of dreams and nightmares (way to go, production designer Stuart Craig! There’s an Oscar in your future.), the plot becomes both more intricate and compelling. Said evil stalks the halls and communicates in snake-language with Harry--seems the boy's, you know, a Parselmouth--but whimsical lessons continue under the tutelage of professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Sprout (Miriam Margolyes) as well as headmaster Albus Dumbledore (good night, Richard Harris, your like will not easily be replaced). The pacing is razor sharp, and the visuals--from zooming broom riding aerial Quidditch match to an unbelievable array of creatures and transformations--are utterly sensational. Director Chris Colombus has fashioned what is quickly becoming one of the finest movie series ever.

The legacy of Harry Potter in popular culture remains to be seen--those who'd burn the books as demonic are encouraged to get library cards pronto--but at present the film of Chamber of Secrets is a welcome delivery of childlike wonder for a planet of ever-increasing ugliness. Perhaps works like this can help set that to rights. It is one of the years best films.

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Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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