10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 54 min.; one of the shortest books gets the longest film in the series.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Richard Griffiths, David Bradley, Matthew Lewis, and the many, many others within the walls of Hogwarts and beyond. The three big names joining the festivities are Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, the ever-underrated Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle, and Kenneth Branagh as fraudulent dreamboat Gilderoy Lockhart. It’s also Richard Harris’ last appearance as Dumbledore — he died shortly before the film’s release.
Revelio Premise: Harry may know he’s a wizard now, but that doesn’t mean his home life is one bit better. Confined to his room and prevented from doing magic by the laws of the wizarding world, Harry’s bad situation gets even worse when a house elf named Dobby shows up to warn him against going back to Hogwarts. He goes again, of course, but when someone or something begins attacking “Muggle-borns” — wizard kids born to non-magic parents — and he’s suspected, his previously wonderful school life becomes more hostile and somehow even more dangerous. Who’s behind it, they can’t tell, but the titular chamber seems to hold the answers.
Artistic Pedigree: You’ll read more about director Chris Columbus in the Sorcerer’s Stone section (hint: you won’t have long to wait there). While his efforts to bring the films to the screen are laudable, and his obvious respect for the material endearing, the director of Stepmom was not perhaps the best choice to bring a story of a kid who experiences almost unending loss, pain, scrutiny, and cruelty to the screen. He’s good on fuzzy moments, not so much on layered, messy, emotional stuff.
Put a Spell on You: When Harry and Ron make their way to the Chamber of Secrets — and more specifically, when Harry goes on alone — there’s suddenly some legit atmosphere. That’s thanks in no small part to Christian Coulson, who was unfortunately too old to return as Tom Riddle in later films. Here, he’s absolutely chilling, displaying a palpable intelligence that makes the young Voldemort seem every bit as formidable as the one we’d later meet in the form of Ralph Fiennes. The crazy cave and giant snake ain’t bad, either.
I cannot state this plainly enough, this children’s movie is six minutes shy of three hours long, that is absolutely bonkers, what the hell: And yet it still feels rushed. Interminable, and yet rushed.
Five-time Winner of Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile Award: The adult actors in the Potter series are not to be fucked with. For the most part, they don’t phone it in — Dame Maggie Smith would never — but even in that crowded field, Kenneth Branagh’s giddy commitment to being just the fucking worst is something to marvel at. Reportedly, Hugh Grant was the first in line for this job, and while the future-and-forever Phoenix Buchanan would play a number of self-obsessed cads to great effect throughout his career, it’s impossible to imagine this film without Branagh’s glinting teeth and feckless scrambling. He’s perfect.
Expecto Verdict: Allow me to just say this one thing about Chris Columbus — who, again, seems to genuinely love these books, bless him. In the Potter books, the Sorting Hat is, of course, capable of singing a yearly song to outline the qualities of each of the Hogwarts houses through a rip in its brim. However, it’s also capable of whispering directly into the ear (or brain) of the student who wears it, while it reads what exists in that student’s mind (and thus heart). Chris Columbus imagines those conversations as the hat bellowing out its thoughts for all to hear. It’s not intimate. It’s public. It’s about observation, not essence. It shows us the most literal version of what happens, without thinking about how it feels, or what it means.
That’s the Chris Columbus take on the Potter world in microcosm. The most faithful adaptation by far is also, in turn, the least magical. That precedent would be broken with the very next film in the series, but we’ll always wonder what a director with more imagination — more magic — might have done with Harry’s first two years at Hogwarts. —Allison Shoemaker