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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2002

Well done, young wizards

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Chris Columbus
Running time: 161 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

It's Harry. He's back. He's older, taller and deeper-voiced, having shed all traces of babyish boyhood, his face already mature beyond his years. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the second in what is slated as a seven-movie series, kicks off with a stronger, more confident Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) than the neglected little boy we saw a year ago. And he's ready to whup any evil spirit, wizard or monster that threatens life at his beloved Hogwarts, the exclusive private school for the offspring of wizardkind. So when groveling sidekick Dobby warns Harry not to return to school after the holidays or terrible things will happen, Harry goes full speed back to Hogwarts where he's reunited with buddies Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).

News photo
The Hogwarts gang in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"

But Dobby was right: Harry hears scary voices audible only to him, then bloody words materialize on the walls: "The chamber of secrets has been opened." The students are attacked and turned to stone -- Hermione among them.

While the first "Harry Potter" film was an introduction to the world of wizardry, this one is an adventure story set entirely within the confines of Hogwarts. The school seems much more mysterious and dense with dark secrets than it was in the first film, its mammoth stone walls offsetting the elegant action sequences that are achieved without explosives, automatic weapons or gore. "Sporting duels" would be the best way to describe the battle scenes, which are perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of Hogwarts.

"Chamber of Secrets" is actually a tale of elite British schooling with all the appropriate trappings of tie-and-cricket-sweater uniforms, interdormitory rivalries, an enormous emphasis on school games and strict masters who don't want to help the students so much as test them at every opportunity. There's also an issue of pure-blood wizards vs. the "mud-bloods" (a kind of gypsy equivalent) with the former persecuting the latter.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of "Chariots of Fire," in which a Cambridge man of Jewish descent rises above discrimination and becomes an Olympic gold medalist. A recurring scene in that movie was two Cambridge professors looking down upon the students from a tower edifice and exchanging snide, superior remarks while sipping tea. There they were, basking in their privileged positions, with centuries of tradition, knowledge and good-breeding oozing from the walls of their comfortable chamber.

The feeling here was that no matter how glorious the achievements of the students, it was the masters (and the school) who benefited. A similar sentiment surfaces in this "Harry Potter" -- for all Harry and his friends' bravery and magical feats, there's a vague suspicion that all this is a class exercise invented by Hogwarts principal Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) to enhance his and the school's reputation.

The refreshing thing about this is that neither Dumbledore nor any of the other professors pretend otherwise. There's no show of phony emotions, no false, flowery speeches. From the beginning, it's understood that if Harry wants to save Hogwarts and his fellow students, then he must do so on his own, using his own judgment. And if he breaks school rules in the process but fails in his task, then the consequences will be severe. This sort of disciplinary education has gone out of style in real life and who would have thought a Hollywood movie could revive it so skillfully.

Accordingly, director Chris Columbus refuses to concentrate all the attention on Harry. He curbs his hero's ego and withholds rewards. And as happens in a true adventure story, all the other characters' personalities are highlighted and fully deployed, enriching the story and packing it with incident. Like a high-powered sports team, everyone's movements are tuned to complement each others, gradually building up the game and forging ahead to triumph.

The characters who do have inflated egos are appropriately mocked, as the school's new professor, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), is to discover in the latter half of the film. An award-winning celeb wizard with many best sellers to his name, Lockhart at first enthralls the students with his charm but soon shows his true colors: all boastful talk and zero magical skills. It's a wonder he ever got tenure to teach at Hogwarts, but on the other hand, one suspects he had been planted there by Dumbledore to show the kids that some grownups just can't be relied on, and they should learn the difference. Which is perhaps, the underlying purpose of any school education.

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