Revisiting ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’: Some Good Moments, But Pretty Underwhelming
Leading up to the 15th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on November 16, we’re looking back on the series and rewatching one movie each week to see how they hold up.
Sequels have a difficult job. How do you follow the success of the first film, expand the characters and world, and tell a story that’s equal to or better than your predecessor? It’s a tough challenge, and it was especially tough for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which opened just a year after 2001’s Sorcerer’s Stone. But unlike most movie franchises, the Harry Potter films were built on a book series telling a story that was much larger than its individual parts.
Chamber of Secrets is a good example of a piece of filmmaking that’s better when considered within a larger context. I’ll be honest: I was never a big fan of the second film. I remembered bits and pieces about it – it’s the one with the Basilisk, the giant spider, the flying car, and Dobby – but in retrospect, the film always blurred in with the rest of the series in my mind. I wondered if it’d just been a long time since I’d watched it in full, but upon revisiting it again this week, I was still underwhelmed.
It’s one of the slowest Harry Potter films and has the least compelling storyline – it’s literally about a snake in a sewer and a living memory inside of a diary. Compared to the action of the first film, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) took on a giant troll, a three-headed dog, a dangerous life-sized chess game, and Voldemort-as-a-head-growth, the bar was immediately set pretty high in the Potterverse. This time, Harry plays hide-and-seek with a snake.
The action is less exciting and Tom Riddle is just a memory after all, so what's the worst that can happen? When Harry meets Tom Riddle and destroys the diary, neither he nor we know that he just destroyed one eighth of Voldemort’s soul; we don’t even learn about the existence of Horcruxes until the sixth film. On its own, the emotional story of Chamber of Secrets is pretty tepid. It's only when you look at how the film fits into the entire series that it feels all the more important. That's great for a franchise, but for an individual film, not so much.
The movie still does a good job of setting up a lot of the pieces for the next six movies. It gives us a brief history of the Hogwarts houses, reveals bits of Voldemort’s backstory, and heightens the rivalry between the Malfoys and Harry. We first learn the meanings of “mud-bloods” and “pure bloods” in this movie – the symbolic racial epithets and plot about a eugenics worldview feels all the more disturbing today in light of the Trump presidential campaign. Those ideas become more and more essential to understanding the evil fueling the Death Eaters and the Malfoys throughout the series. Like the first film, Chamber of Secrets continues to sets the stage for what’s to come.
But if there’s anything I absolutely hate about this movie, it’s Chris Columbus’ direction. The guy seriously needed to chill out on the Dutch angles. The final sequence in the Chamber of Secrets is some of the ugliest imagery I remember from the series. Everything in the finale is filtered with an icky green and blue lighting (sure, sure it’s symbolic of Slytherin, but it looks silly and amateur). Columbus films Tom Riddle’s reveal with a series of skewed, stretched close-ups and dutch angles that straight up look bad. Dutch angles are bad! Can we please ban dutch angles from movies now and forever?
The film does have a handful of memorable moments, though, like the dueling scene between Draco and Harry. I love this scene! (Full disclosure: This movie marked my year-long crush on Tom Felton, whose photos may or may not have covered the inside of the 6th grade locker.) Crushes aside, this is the last time you can actually like Draco. He’s more treacherous and bratty in this movie, but he’s still naive and and pretty harmless, so you don’t quite hate him yet. The dueling scene is a great moment that lets Harry and Draco get out all their adolescent magical angst on one another (it’s pretty much the wizard equivalent of two teachers allowing kids to have a schoolyard fight). They get to duke it out again in the Quidditch match, which is another huge visual improvement from the match of the first film.
Overall The Chamber of Secrets ranks pretty low on my list of favorite Harry Potter movies. If I was marathoning them again, this is probably the one I’d skip. But hey, at least it has Dobby.
- Kenneth Branagh is a good actor. This movie does not appreciate Kenneth Branagh.
- Chamber of Secrets really doesn’t capture just how horrifying it would be to receive a Howler in the school cafeteria of your mother screaming at you. I’d drop out and change schools.
- I’m not gonna lie, the spider chase sequence is still a thing of nightmares that I had to watch through my fingers. He may be CG, but Aragog is absolutely terrifying.
- Richard Harris has some wonderful final scenes as Dumbledore, especially his inspirational talks with Harry in the Headmaster’s office.