‘Harry Potter’ is a story that will live through at least a few generations, and November 14th, 2021 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of the first film. I’ve grappled with my relationship with this story. In 2001, This world felt like it was just opening up, and now, on 4K Ultra HD with High Dynamic Range, I ‘m continuing to revisit this fantasy to see whether it lives beyond the real-world problems surrounding it and explore how we might, as consumers, change the way we think about sharing stories that matter to us.
Cheers to Dutch angles! Chamber of Secrets is difficult to review as a stand-alone film due to the similar framing, familiar locations, filmic look, lighting, and story beats of the first movie. In addition, things like moving staircases, Quidditch, the function of Hogwarts as a boarding school, and a few basics about Harry’s upbringing are brushed over rather than re-treaded. The pacing, despite a longer runtime, is quicker and this is observable mainly in contrast to “Sorcerer’s (Philospher’s) Stone” due to their similarities. However, most adult audiences won’t need much explained to embrace the concept of a secret evil Chamber and monster and a hero (or three) who learn magic to discover and defeat them, and so most children will be able to ask questions as needed for collaborative engagement with the story.
The 4k picture is sharper and HDR pulls out oranges and blues around an already colorful set design. The upgrade allows for a decent layer of film-grain which, in my opinion, helps to mesh CGI elements such as “the howler” and pixies against the practical backdrops. Of course, impossible details become discoverable, like seeing Ron’s breath when he says, “uh-oh, I smell trouble,” green moss on some castle walls, or seeing a spell reflect off Emma Watson’s eyeballs as she casts it from her wand. Green screen shots/blending in the full-featured Quidditch match are ever-so-slightly more noticeable.
Even with a sound system in desperate need of an upgrade, naturally recorded and simulated sounds of magic and fabric and walking and flying all blend in an immersive manner. And, of course, John Williams score seems so natural yet defines the world, with character themes and a classical presentation invoking scale and emotion. To this day, the theme for Fawkes the phoenix makes me feel like something is being overcome, whatever that may be. It feels like hope.
Chris Columbus has taken what some claim to be a simple/flat approach to direction, which I would argue is work that avoids drawing attention to itself in favor of the set design allowing the world to feel believable. (It’s fascinating, in a way, to explore hints of what his directing “Goblet of Fire’ or “Half-Blood Prince” would’ve looked like based on the flash-back sequence to a young Tom Riddle and out first glimpse of the Pensieve.) This combined with writing attempting to incorporate as many plot points and book-details as possible, there are clear efforts to balance devotion to this story’s audience of readers vs “film” goers and critics. For example, Gilderoy Lockhart could simply be petrified or unconscious due to the added concrete slides around the start of the movie’s third act, but Ron’s broken wand, which Gilderoy steals, serves a screenwriting function and as service to devoted fans. (After this film, the level of detail fed into the subplots of Ron and Hermione is reduced in favor of Harry’s journey through the events of the books).
Kenneth Branagh (A self-aggrandizing Lockhart), Alan Rickmen (once more reserved, bitter, and heartfelt as Snape), Jason Isaacs (a delightfully loathsome Lucious Malfoy), Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout), Gemma Jones (the underappreciated Madam Pomfrey), and above all Toby Jones (who, if you didn’t know, was Dobby before Arnim Zola) stand out among the guest/supporting cast.
I single out Toby Jones for bringing Dobby to life the same year we met Andy Serkis in “The Two Towers,” marking a transition in digital cinema. Also worth noting on his own is the late Richard Harris, who graces the screen with a charm, peacefulness, and grounding presence of leadership as he pulls at what may be the singular thread that is the point of this retrospective; “help will always be available at Hogwarts, to those who ask for it.” (This in contrasts with “those who deserve it,” which we’ll discuss soon.)
The leads age, their voices drop, they seem more engaged even when the camera isn’t focused on them (see the reaction shot of Hermione when Hagrid discusses chopping up Mandrakes), and nineteen years later, “Chamber of Secrets” stands as a near quintessential mystery in a fire-lit castle, somehow modern and timeless once you surrender to the logic of the existence of its world. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to the moment the filmmakers decided to take us out from Harry’s perspective, so we feel how others see Harry when he speaks Parseltongue, which is something the books could not give its’ audience.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is a movie directed at twelve-year-old humans. It continues to support and develop the idea that what someone is at birth DOES NOT DEFINE THEM. “Half-blood,” “muggle born,” “Slytherin,” “Gryffindor,” nothing can remove the truth that comes from the choices we make, which come from what we know to be true about ourselves despite the harmful beliefs that survive generations. Whatever J.K. Rowling believes, she has continued to provide a story to help children discover themselves, and now to stand up for who they are. The focus is ever so slightly less accessible to universal audiences with the creatures chosen and the beginnings of exploring a darkness that defines the story’s heroes as those who stand up in the face of exclusionist antagonists like Lucious Malfoy.
If readers of this article can explore lending copies, buying second-hand (assuming not from an illegal vendor), and sharing with those who may be interested (streaming parties, etc.), The movie is a valuable chapter and story, despite an arguably bloated runtime (2 hrs 40 mins), but would, in my opinion, be just as immersive on Blu-ray or streaming as it is on a 4K hard disc.
(This series is intended to review the Harry Potter movies as pieces resulting from collaborations between artists and commercial stakeholders. July 11th, 2021 will mark the ten year-anniversary of the U.S. theatrical release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt2.” If you’re still grappling with your relationship to this fandom, whether it be due to Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller, or J.K. Rowling herself, I welcome you to explore many supportive sources of information online (Particularly Lindsay Ellis’ commentary on “death of the author” and Ms. Rowling’s platform: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NViZYL-U8s0) )