What do you do if you're making a sequel to one of the most successful films of all time, that's based on a beloved, best-selling novel, and promises to be just the second offering in a plump franchise? Why, you stay the course, toe the line and don't rock the boat.
Yes, most of the gang's all back for "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the familiar-feeling follow-up to the mega-successful "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Following the cinematic mantra of "Don't mess with success," director Chris Columbus ("Bicentennial Man," "Mrs. Doubtfire") and screenwriter Steven Kloves ("Wonder Boys," "The Fabulous Baker Boys") have adapted author J.K. Rowling's 1998 novel in a mostly faithful fashion.
The result is a film that both benefits and suffers a bit from such familiarity. From a financial standpoint, the move is smart on the author and filmmakers' parts. After all, kids love repetition and familiarity and will return countless time as long as no one has messed with "their" story.
While the plots of the two films obviously have their differences in story and some characters, the flow, direction and approach are quite similar. Accordingly, the film starts off with Harry back with his repugnant relatives, heads to the magical train station, then Diagon Alley and finally to Hogwarts. There, he plays Quidditch, has lessons from the professors, interacts with the good and bad, and then tries to solve a mystery with his best friends, just like the first time around.
Similarly, Columbus again delivers each scene and sequence with care, but not always with enough passion, resulting in an effort that doesn't always fly as high or effortlessly as it should, particularly for a film about magical places, beings and doings.
The specific details are obviously different, but the effort does take on something of a TV series feel where the familiar and recurring characters simply have a new adventure that unfolds in what's now a formulaic fashion. The result will be comforting to some - particularly younger kids who will find reassurance in the familiarity in the face of new dangers and scary scenes - while others - mostly older viewers - might not react as favorably.
That said, the picture does benefit from not having to explain and introduce everyone and everything like the first film and thus doesn't feel quite as stodgily beholden to the source material. On the other hand, it feels as if it's missing some of the freshness, magic and wonder that was present the last time around.
While the sorcery and related material is still present, it lacks the novelty of seeing it for the first time. Like the last film, this one also borrows some of its signature set pieces from previous films and other works - most notably the giant spiders and snake sequences. While those do manage to work - and could give kids some serious nightmares - the result is more of the same old, same old feeling.
All of that out of the way, Columbus and company manage to inject enough imagination into those scenes and the rest of the film to keep it from feeling too recycled. Considering the rather long running time of 160 some minutes (yes, nearing 3 hours), they also keep things moving along at a good clip, no doubt helped by the film's topnotch technical work and overall visual appearance.
As far as the performances are concerned, they're pretty much on par with those in the first film. Daniel Radcliffe ("The Tailor of Panama"), Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (both making their second film) return in the main roles and feel more comfortable in them. The only slightly troublesome thing is that Radcliffe and Grint look noticeably more grown up in the real and fictional passage of just one year. The age progress is obviously expected and fits in with the time interval in the film. Yet, if the maturation continues at its current rate, one fears they'll physically outgrow the series before it's done.
Tom Felton ("Anna and the King," "The Borrowers"), Robbie Coltrane ("The World is Not Enough," "Message in a Bottle"), Alan Rickman ("Galaxy Quest," "Die Hard"), Maggie Smith ("Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," "Gosford Park"), and the late Richard Harris ("The Count of Monte Cristo," "Gladiator") also reprise their respective roles, but the latter three don't get as much screen time as I would have liked to have seen (although I realize this isn't their story).
New additions include Shirley Henderson ("24 Hour Party People," "Bridget Jones's Diary") as the girls room ghost, Jason Isaacs ("The Tuxedo," "The Patriot") as Draco's equally snide and sneering father, and Kenneth Branagh ("Love's Labour's Lost," "Wild Wild West") as an egotistical professor. Isaacs is appropriately condescending and physically looks the part, but otherwise brings little to it. Branagh is fun as the egocentric character (watch for him painting a painting of himself painting a painting of himself), but his eventual turn is not only predictable, but also unsatisfactory.
Then there's the completely computer-generated house elf, Dobby, who is voiced by Toby Jones ("The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," "Ever After"). An odd little sort with a penchant for literally beating himself up, the character will no doubt have his detractors, but thankfully he's not the second coming of Jar-Jar Binks.
It's in the small special effects touches -- such as the paintings that are alive and some interesting potted plants whose roots are bizarre, infant-like beings that bawl when yanked up -- where the film shines, much as was the case with its predecessor. I found myself repeatedly wishing, however, that the plot could be as imaginative as the effects and production work.
In the end, and considering the differences and similarities between the two pictures, I felt this offering was about on par with the first from a pure entertainment standpoint. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is nothing spectacular, but does earn a passing grade of 6 out of 10.