Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Harry Potter and the Sophomore Slump

Chamber of Secrets is both my least favorite book to reread and my least favorite movie to rewatch. I admit to being very close to pushing it below the “Good” benchmark. But the movie’s character development and powerful thematic undercurrents are strong enough to pull it just enough over the line.

The problem with Chamber of Secrets on a plot level is that so many of its threads are ultimately pointless red herrings and/or driven by stupidity. A solid half of the misadventures are caused by Dobby being an ass with his thin and grating schtick of trying to scare Harry away from Hogwarts. The excursion into spider-infested woods is an extended bit of story fluff, as is the Polyjuice Potion incident.

So many of the conflicts in this Harry Potter outing could have been resolved with a simple conversation. It’s aggravating. Ron and Harry could have waited until Ron’s parents returned from the Hogwarts Express instead of jacking the flying car; Hagrid could have directly said “I was framed, and Aragog is not the Chamber monster”; Hermione could have told Ron and Harry what the monster was before she went to the library; etc.

Alas. These are mostly rewatch/reread problems because it’s all pretty fun stuff in real time. It’s only the burden of hindsight that reveals it all as pretty boneheaded and circuitous.

Chamber of Secrets intentionally pivots to a much darker, horror-inspired atmosphere full of shadows, darkness, and canted angles. It’s more weighted down with its preponderance of episodic plot points than the first movie, and it made me miss the original’s sense of wonder.

On the “very good” side of the equation, the Chamber of Secrets has an honest-to-God theme beyond the “gee whiz, boy hero, chosen one!” of Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry reckons with the fame he had no say in and all the signs pointing towards him “breaking bad,” and he wonders if some sort of moral descent is inevitable in this bleak world. Enter Dumbledore: “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.” It’s an absolute banger of a film’s mission statement.

That thread of moral discovery in the midst of escalating danger is what makes the movie so satisfying even with the aimless mystery plotting, the bloated runtime, Chris Columbus’s slipping control of the material, the middling effects, etc. (That they didn’t make the serpent scarier might be my biggest complaint of the entire movie.)

You can probably guess the rest — the British all-star squad acting is still outstanding (the additions of Kenneth Branagh and Jason Isaacs are particular highlights), John Williams still rules, etc. For me, it’s a movie that comes down to endurance: Can you shake off enough of the rickety stuff to find that kernel of narrative and spiritual greatness at its core? For me, the answer is “yes, but barely.”

March 2024 update: My daughters watched this for the first time, and I joined them. Seeing Chamber of Secrets through the eyes of a child again made me appreciate it as a classical child’s adventure in ways I’d underrated when I first wrote this review, though my complaints about the stodgy pacing and the frustrating narrative structure (80+% red herrings) remain. But this is firmly in “Good” territory instead of right on the line.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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