Full ReviewChris Columbus is back directing the sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (Warner Bros.), but some of the magic is missing.
Based on the second of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels, the movie finds the young wizard back at school, where he is suspected of turning some of his fellow students into stone. The two hours and 40 minutes feels really long in sections where the exposition is plodding and the pace lags. Daniel Radcliffe's Harry also looks a fair bit older than his 12-year-old character.
To be sure, there are delightful special-effects scenes, such as when Harry and his buddy Ron (Rupert Grint) land their flying car on the grounds of Hogwarts School in a magical willow tree -- that promptly starts beating them up for their most unwelcome intrusion. A lot less delectable scene features Ron spitting out one slimy slug after another when a spell backfires on him. Still, this humor is a cut above the body-fluids toilet humor so prevalent in contemporary gross-out movies. Grint's acting, however, has veered toward the hammy as he mugs his way through the sequel.
Also overstating their nasty personas are the Malfoys: son Draco (Tom Felton) and his newcomer father, Lucius (a sneering Jason Isaacs). But, adding mild comic relief, Kenneth Branagh joins the cast as the madly self-aggrandizing new professor whose magical talents are wildly overstated -- by himself.
The recent death of Richard Harris adds unexpected poignancy to the movie as he plays the venerable white-bearded Headmaster Dumbledore in a whispery voice as if he truly were on his last legs. Also looking wizened in a small but keenly delivered performance is Maggie Smith, once again portraying the wise Professor McGonagall.
So what's Harry up to this go-round?
He's escaped his dreadful Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) and ignored warnings not to return to Hogwarts from elf-servant Dobby, a new, computer-generated character with a fondness for self-inflicted head-banging. Something terrible is happening at the school: Students are being turned into stone -- and Harry is suspected of being behind it. Hogwarts may have to close its doors. As his friend Hermione (Emma Watson) works on a potion to revive the students, Harry and Ron try to identify the true evildoer who can unlock the dreaded chamber of secrets, thereby unleashing a hideous monster.
While the narrative is packed with incident and the production design remains impressive, the freshness of the original is lacking. A little of Dobby, the bug-eyed E.T.-like creature, goes a long way, to the point of reminding one of Jar Jar Binks of "Star Wars" fame -- or, more correctly, infamy. And that can't be good.
Radcliffe reliably anchors the picture, however, and Watson's Hermione is no longer a haughty know-it-all. Youngsters may be amused by the scene of the shrieking Mandrakes or find exciting the spiders chasing Harry and Ron, but for younger children the grand finale where Harry must face down the gigantic serpent is probably too frightening. Yet overall, the very real sense of danger all the students should feel at a school where at any moment they may turn into a frozen statue doesn't come across strongly.
It is to be stressed, as with its predecessor, the film is only a fantasy -- not a course in witchcraft -- so it is not attempting to undermine Catholic beliefs. Harry is out to thwart evil and protect his fellow students even at the risk of his own safety. Children too young to understand the difference between fantasy and reality are not the appropriate audience.
Because of some scary fantasy menace, fleeting violence and a crude expression, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.