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DVD Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

By Glenn Abel

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Potter art Alan Rickman, noted alchemist of stage and screen, knows the real magicians of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

The second Potter film presented "a real opportunity for the craftspeople of the industry to show what they can do -- in a big way," Rickman says on the DVD version of "Chamber." "It's a fantastic demonstration."

Alas, the wizards of Below the Line will have to find another DVD on which to unveil the secrets behind creations such as the fiery Phoenix, Dobby the downcast house-elf and the film's giant snakes and spiders.

Like the first "Potter" DVD, "Chamber" stays true to Potter's legions of young fans, with games, happy-face interviews and trivia tests for tweens and their younger siblings. There's no uneasy mix of techie and kiddie extras, as has become standard on DVDs for effects-laden films ("Star Wars," "Ice Age," "Spider-Man"). Grown-up muggles need not apply for this semester at Hogwarts.

Warner Bros. has released "Chamber" as a two-disc set in widescreen (enhanced for 16x9) and full-screen. Both retail for $29.95. The 161-minute film looks great, as in theaters, with medieval ambers and black-magic blacks effectively conveying the second installment's darker tone. Skin tones are especially pleasing. Most of the murk that haunted the first "Potter" film's darker scenes has done a disappearing act.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix comes in English and Spanish, crisply delivering the high-volume jolts as Harry hurls spells and battles the beasts of the underworld. Directional effects are used with reserve, enhancing their impact when finally unleashed (check out the surround at 1:48, when Harry hurls a hungry spider across your living room.)

Menu art alternates between Gothic creepy and castle-fire warmth. Fortunately, navigation links don't call for as much needless casting about as last time out.

The DVD for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" cruelly locked its deleted scenes behind a time-consuming game. "Phoenix" rises above that, providing direct access to 19 outtakes. Most are snippets, but director Chris Columbus unlocks a few telling scenes: a creepy visit to a shop with Lucius Malfoy and his son; a bit of school politics as classmates gossip about Harry's true intentions; and some nice one-on-ones between Potter and Hagraid and Hermione and Professor Lockhart.

"Potter" author J.K. Rowling and American screenwriter Steve Kloves talk about the project in a fairly informative interview apparently taken from British television.

"I just steal her best stuff," Kloves says.

"And I don't sue," Rowling shoots right back.

While Rowling indicates that she's told Kloves more about her closely guarded plot lines than anyone else, he still gets his information about the series' direction on a "need to know" basis.

"The hardest thing for me is, I'm writing a story to which I do not know the end," he says. "I keep hoping that (Rowling) will slip up and tell me something."

The duo say the amount of interaction needed on "Chamber" was significantly less than on the first "Potter" film because of its linear plot. Both agree that the next film, "The Prisoner of Azkaban," due next year, should be the best in the series, playing off major new characters.

Aside from the Rowling-Kloves piece, the cast interviews are securely canned.

Richard Harris, who died in October, raves about the actors-rep atmosphere on Columbus' set. "I've never seen a day of pressure," the headmaster says. "We trust each other." The DVD has no mention of Harris' passing.

Jason Isaacs, who debuted as the white-haired villain Professor Malfoy, says he was amazed to find his onscreen son Draco, an "unpleasant little slimeball," is in reality "a tremendously charming young man." The actor, Tom Felton, and star Daniel Radcliffe are, in fact, good pals, Isaacs reveals.

Richard Griffiths, who plays Potter's cluelessly abusive uncle, raves about Radcliffe's progress since the first film, in which he was a "schoolboy" who had to be told everything. "He's grown amazingly in his understanding of how to move around the camera," Griffiths says. "It's wonderful to watch him open up."

Kenneth Branagh, who limns the blowhard dandy Professor Lockhart, says he was made most to feel at home on the set by the trio of young stars: Radcliffe, Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley). A clip of the kids horsing around shows them looking every bit the Fab Three.

Studio craftsmen do get a nod on the DVD. The classy featurette "Build the Scene" gives youngsters a proper lesson in the logistics of filmmaking ("It starts with a script ..."). The docu covers cinematography, sets, costumes, visual effects and other details rarely found in extras for young people. The featurette should be required viewing in middle schools across the Potter kingdom.

Columbus talks about the "snakelike quality" he sought in the camerawork, playing off one of the film's major themes. A clip shows the director in a pas de deux with a particularly versatile Steadicam operator that allowed Columbus to capture the exact union of images and movement that he sought.

Cinematographer Roger Pratt, whose mission was to convey the dread found in the Chamber of Secrets, says, "I think dark is a mood -- how you achieve it might not entail less light." Instead, Pratt worked with perspective, creating the illusion that hallways and stairways go on into infinity.

John Williams runs a clip of a scene without his music, and then with it, making the case for syrupy strings as conveyors of emotion.

The DVD's so-so games include an "Evil Dead"-like visit to the Forbidden Forest and a maze that rewards victors with an interactive tour of the Chamber of Secrets.

Other extras include production sketches, a build-it-yourself slide show of photos from the film, a preview of the DVD-ROM features and a noninteractive demo of the Electronic Arts video game.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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