A rare sequel that improves upon the original, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" still has some concerns, but the darker tone and mystery of the story make for a more involving movie. The film opens with Harry once again living at his evil relatives before being rescued by his friends from school. However, before he left with his friends, Harry was warned by house-elf Dobby that he'd be in terrible danger if he returns to school for another semester at Hogwarts.
Once he's back at school, rejoined with friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), the warnings start to become true. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and friends spy a warning that those who aren't pure-blood wizards will be in serious trouble. When several of the students turn up petrified, Harry - who turns up in the wrong place at the wrong time - becomes a suspect.
It's up to Harry to find out who's behind the strange occurances and what is in the school's dark "Chamber of Secrets" before more students are in danger and the school is closed. Many of the characters from the first film - strict Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, perfect in the role), headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris, in his final role), Draco (Tom Felton) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). New characters, such as Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), Draco's father, also make an impression. Felton is more delightfully evil this time around as Draco, too, while Harris is especially good in his final performance.
I like several aspects of "Chamber of Secrets", both great and small, over the prior film. "Sorcerer's Stone" boasted marvelous digital effects, nearly all of which were seamless and visually inspired. However, the sequel not only boasts the same level of effects work, but integrates them into the story in a better (and somewhat more restrained) fashion. I also liked the fact that the film's locations are used a bit more strongly in this film, with the cinematography nicely highlighting the haunting and beautiful architecture. The darker tone is also well-handled, as are the mystery elements.
That said, the second film still has some issues of its own. As with the first film, the nearly three-hour running time begins to feel unnecessary at times. Once again, we get an entertaining first act, a zippy last act and a middle act that often just holds the attenion, but occasionally becomes a bit tedious during some stretches. As with the first film, I still feel Radcliffe is the least interesting of the three leads. Graves is funnier here than he was in the last film and it's especially unfortunate that lovable know-it-all Hermione, played so well by Emma Watson, gets less screen time here.
Overall though, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is a welcome return. The performances are great, the material is a bit more involving and richer, and the mystery and adventure are somewhat more exciting and compelling. An excellent sequel, but I'm particularly interested in what new director Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") has in store for the next sequel.
VIDEO: "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is presented by Warner Brothers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (a severely cropped pan & scan version will also be available). The second film has a somewhat darker, more shadowy feel than the first picture, capably presented by Roger Pratt ("Batman", "Iris")'s cinematography. Sharpness and detail are, as one might expect, first rate; the presentation boasts fine detail and depth to the image. Of course, it's not as amazing as the very impressive DLP presentation I saw theatrically last Winter, but it's still very nice, nonetheless.
Although there are some occasional faults visible throughout this presentation, the picture quality overall is better than that of the DVD of the first picture. While grain gave some scenes from the first film a rather harsh appearance, grain isn't really an issue here. As one might expect, the print looked terrific, with not a speck or mark to be seen. Edge enhancement does become a slight issue in a few scenes, but I was never bothered by it.
The film's rich, dark color palette looked accurately rendered here, with nice saturation and no flaws. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. This is a very, very nice transfer; it's not perfect, but at its best, it looks fantastic.
SOUND: As with the previous film, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. This film's sound design benefits from the addition of sound designer Randy Thom (the award winning sound designer of such films as "Cast Away", "Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within" and "Jumanji") to the film's sound crew. Thom and the film's sound crew have created a soundtrack that, while still maybe not as aggressive as it could have been, is a more entertaining and lively effort than the prior "Potter" film's sound.
One of the film's examples several instances of fun sound design comes early on, when the students are pulling the Mandrakes out of their pots. The screams of the little creatures can be heard from all around the viewer, including the back surround. A scene soon after with pixies also sends the sounds of the little creatures scurrying around the listening space. The sound design of the Quidditch match also is better realized here, with a more enveloping and aggressive feel to the sound than I remember from the scene in the first film. In other words, the danger and excitement of the Quidditch match is communicated better this time around not only in terms of the visuals, but the sound.
The film's second hour does have some stretches of rather front-heavy sound, mainly because the dialogue-heavy passages don't have much need for rear speaker use (although maybe some ambience would have been nice). Still, as the film heads into the third act, there are some additional sound surprises to be found as the surrounds once again kick in during several scenes. Audio quality is certainly up to expectations for such a massive project. The film's sound remained dynamic and crisp throughout, with the John Williams score, dialogue and effects remaining clean and easily heard. Some of the effects sound especially punchy, and low bass is also present during many scenes. This is a very, very enjoyable soundtrack.
EXTRAS: Once again, Warner Brothers has provided a set of supplements that seem targeted towards the DVD's younger viewers, although some of the supplements (and the navigation) are improved over the DVD for the prior film. Director Chris Columbus, who will not be doing the third film, still has not recorded a commentary.
On the first disc, viewers will find the film's theatrical trailer, bios and "Year One At Hogwarts", which is a basic guide to the first film.
The most worthwhile feature on the second disc are the deleted scenes. While the nearly three hour picture is long as is, some of these deleted or extended scenes offer some entertaining action (a little more Quidditch, for example) or involving character moments that are fun to watch.
Also interesting are the interviews, including a 16-minute interview with novelist JK Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves. The two writers discuss and joke (in terms of how Kloves doesn't always get information about what's happening in the future stories about the characters) about the process of trying to bring the series to the screen. There are also brief interviews with the lead and supporting actors (viewers click on a question and we hear the responses from the cast in terms of the "students" - there are more standard interviews from the cast who play the professors ).
Also on disc two are production sketches, a 16-minute featurette on production design, games, behind-the-scenes tours, a preview of the video game and more information about Branagh's character, who has his own section. There's also DVD-ROM features, including a Hogwart's timeline, screensavers, additional games and more.
Final Thoughts: I found "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" to be a darker, more mysterious and involving film than the previous picture. It's not without some concerns, but the performances are good, it's imaginative and it puts digital effects to better use. The DVD for the sequel is also an improvement, as audio/video quality were consistently excellent, and the supplements seemed a bit better. With a project this massive, it still feels as if there could/should be far more supplements exploring the making of the film. Still, I'll certainly give "Chamber of Secrets" a recommendation.