James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
More of the same in this first sequel, as Harry and friends investigate weird goings on at Hogwarts. The JK Rowling money-making behemoth lumbers onward
Fans of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, the first movie adaptation of JK Rowling's children's books, won't be disappointed by this second instalment, as it's a very similar product. The acting skill still resides wholly in the adult contingent (here including Kenneth Branagh and Jason Isaacs), the sizeable budget is again evident on the screen (with an array of great effects), and the plot is, well, almost the same (something weird is afoot at Hogwarts, the kids investigate and come out dirty but victorious).
Although the filmmakers claim that the tone is "darker" here, this supposed change is negligible. The biggest difference is that the voices of Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have broken.
Despite his new-found powers, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is still being brutalised by his foul aunt and uncle. When Dobby the house elf (voiced by Toby Jones) shows up to warn our hero ("Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry this year!"), he angers young Potter's step-parents, who lock Harry in his bedroom. However, soon Ron (Rupert Grint) and his brothers free him with the aid of a flying Ford Anglia and the chums are back at school for another term.
The plot proper begins when messages written in blood start appearing on the walls and pupils are discovered "petrified" (not dead, just magically frozen stiff). Harry, Ron and Hermione (Emma Watson) are soon drawn into another adventure - not least because our hero alone can hear a creepy snake-like voice urging "Kill! Kill! Kill!".
All this is presented with wonderful spectacle. Hogwarts looks fabulous, the stairwells and chambers a canny mixture of venerable British locations, sets and CG work. The new additions to the adult cast are great too - Branagh is great as the preening Gilderoy Lockhart, poncing around and sending himself up. Jason Isaacs is also fun as the nasty Lucius Malfoy, all arrogant glower and long blonde locks.
Sadly, there's not enough Alan Rickman this time. Other, non-human, new cast members are of variable quality. Arachnophobes will freak at the hordes of special effects spiders, and the climactic basilisk looks good - it resembles a limbless dragon. Dobby, however, is cause for concern. Acting is still just too much to expect of CG characters it seems, though he's not as irritating as Jar-Jar Binks. He's an odd creation nonetheless. A slave and fervent masochist - who resembles an old man's penis - he may not be entirely suitable for younger viewers.
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Those who adore the books may bemoan the flat emotional landscape of the films, which are less easy to engage with. Fans of the first film will be suitably entertained. Fans of neither won't give a monkeys about this mixed bag Christmas blockbuster.
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