It's the clumsiest Harry Potter film. There's stuff I adore here, but also a fair few missteps and I think it's significantly worse than its predecessor. As a whole, I still love it, though.
Let's start with the acting, which is mostly great, but with prominent flaws. GOOD = Watson, Grint, Felton, Isaacs, Branagh, Rickman, Henderson, Bradley. BAD = Radcliffe, Griffiths, Coltrane (although I'm being harsh) and Branagh. No, the list overlap isn't a mistake. I meant to write Branagh twice. Starting with the bad...
Daniel Radcliffe is worse than last time. He doesn't get any quiet, resonant moments like the ones he had in the first film, while his shortcomings as an actor are being shown up more brutally because he's the protagonist throughout. (Last time, he had a holiday from any responsibilities in the first half.) He fails with the Dursleys, drifting through his scenes with no force behind his motivations. "Give me those now!" is weak, as is his later threat to strangle Dobby. There's nothing in Radcliffe's eyes when he's speaking to the snake.
Mind you, it's probably a factor that my last three examples all make Radcliffe act opposite CGI. Come on, guys. Give the child actor a bit more help, couldn't you?
Griffiths, somehow, doesn't work for me and it took me a while to even realise that. He's consistent and solid at what he's doing. His performance, at first, second and third glance, looks good. However I, personally, get bluster from him, rather than a living, breathing person. It's Children's Film Foundation buffoonery.
Robbie Coltrane still wasn't impressing me. He's not giving it much in the scene where he bursts into Dumbledore's office, for instance. He's still perfect casting as the lovable lump, though, and anyone would struggle to project a performance through all that hair. There are also scenes where he shines, e.g. comforting Hermione about being called "mudblood".
Then there's Kenneth Branagh, who's at once glorious and not very good. He's playing Lockhart as all surface, which is at once fitting and regrettable. It makes the character weightless. He doesn't seem to matter, you don't take him seriously even though he's dangerous and you don't really care when he gets his comeuppance. However at the same time he's also a joy to watch and killingly funny. Posing, preening and never missing a chance for self-publicity, he's a wank stain of a man and Branagh was obviously having a whale of a time. It's easily the funniest performance in (what I've seen of) the series and he's the biggest slab of awesome in this movie. He's just delicious on screen.
None of those are horrible. The casting is immaculate and even the big problem (Radcliffe) isn't movie-wrecking. He's likeable and the film carries him.
The cool actors, though, are very, very cool. Isaacs eats up the screen as Lucius Malfoy. The likes of Henderson and Bradley are so perfect that it's immediately hard to imagine the characters any other way. Rickman is doing really interesting things with the role of Snape, undercutting angry scenes with what feels to me like sadness. Snape's still clearly a bitter man, but Rickman's avoiding the obvious choices in a role that could easily have seemed like just a trope ("teacher who hates Harry").
Then we have the child actors, who are already just about perfect. Radcliffe's so bad that it's easy to overlook how good the others are, although in fairness he's got a far heavier burden to carry. He's carrying a 161-minute film. Felton, for instance, is excellent as Draco, but stumbles slightly when given an entire scene (opposite non-Crabbe and non-Goyle) instead of just being a foil. That gives perspective to judgements on Radcliffe. Anyway, Watson had already nailed it last time, but Grint of all people is adding far more than you'd think. Look at those facial expressions. You could call it mugging, but look at what he's bringing to the party in, say, the Aragog forest scene. Grint's going way over the top, but in a way that works and sells you the scene. When he looks up, you really believe that Ron's seeing man-eating spiders. That's a gift, that is. It's not just the special effects department who deserve the credit for that scene, but also Grint. (See also his reaction to the howler.) He's still just the comic relief, but I really rate him.
Incidentally, I'm informed that this film is rich in fangirl service. Severus Snape, Lucius Malfoy and (which surprised me, although it probably shouldn't have) Tom Riddle. All much admired.
The plot feels a little bloated, in a way that Harry Potter films normally avoid. The finale goes on a bit, although Dobby's scene is great. Aragog is a plot dogleg. This is the longest of the eight films, but based on the second shortest book.
That said, though, I love individual set-pieces. The Whomping Willow fills me with glee, while there are horror movies less scary than Aragog, his forest lair and his little chums. I'm in awe of whoever put all that in a children's film. I approve, naturally.
Then we have the subtleties, set-up and foreshadowing, even if some of it's accidental. We see the first magical duel! It's only between Harry and Draco (since Snape vs. Lockhart doesn't count), but today it's impossible not to watch that and remember that in a few films' time, we'll be seeing that in earnest while people die. Harry's Parseltongue is kind of sinister, but less so than seeing Harry talking to Tom Riddle's diary as if they're just chatting on the internet. Wow, that was creepy. I got the willies at that.
Then there's the stuff that might slip by unless you're really paying attention. Look at what Lucius was about to blast Harry with at the end. "Avada." Yeesh. Was he really about to say "Avada Kedavra"? (He doesn't get even that much out in the book.) Also, when Hermione gets her Polyjuice Potion book out of the library, there's a book to the right that just says "TOM" on the spine. They're making that potion in order to find the Heir of Slytherin, but look what was under her nose. Oh, and more frivolously, look at Lockhart's painting of himself that he plonks at the front of his classroom. That's already narcissism squared, but better still is that the Lockhart in the picture is painting another self-portrait, inside which another Lockhart is painting a further self-portrait. Recursive infinite narcissism.
We also have themes. The obvious stuff is the snobbery and racism of "muggle-born", "mudblood", etc. which is strong and important. The book's full of people whose identity is a mask, e.g. Lockhart and Tom Riddle, while Harry's worldview is being challenged by evidence that he's the same as Voldemort (the Sorting Hat, the Parselmouth). The message of course is that it's your choices, not your birth, that make you what you are. Harry wins, in part, because he can empathise with people who aren't normal, e.g. Dobby, Moaning Myrtle and (more in the book) Nearly Headless Nick.
I even see a reflection of this in the flying car. The whole point of Dobby is that there are wizards (e.g. the Malfoys) who treat house elves as subhuman slaves and that this is wrong. Bearing this in mind, consider the car. Weasley Sr's magic hasn't just given it superpowers, but intelligence. It's alive. When Ron flies it into the Whomping Willow, it gets angry and jettisons him and Harry, chucks their luggage after them and then drives off. Later it comes to their rescue, after living wild in the forest for months. This is pushing the boundaries of what we'd consider to be a person, even for us in the audience, but the car's clearly a character in the film and one without whom our heroes would be amazingly dead. No one ever stops to consider its feelings, but it appears to have them. It gets pissed off, then later it chooses to be heroic.
Taking us even further over that line are the mandrakes. They're ugly, mindless and will kill you, but they're still babies that no one thinks twice about cutting into slices and boiling to death for the sake of some medicine. Every time Harry's life gets saved in this film, it tends to be by a thing, something that has life but is nonetheless generally regarded as being in some way subhuman. Fawkes the phoenix, the flying car, etc. Dobby is widely regarded (including by himself) as being in this category too. It's even possible to feel sorry for the SPOILER, which must have been living peacefully in the Chamber of Secrets for centuries and would only turn dangerous when commanded by the Heir of Slytherin.
The film's also suspicious of believing everything you read (Lockhart's books, Riddle's diary), by the way.
All that I love. This film is full of things to admire, enjoy or think about. It's charming. However it's also riddled with holes and annoying bits.
STUFF I DON'T LIKE
I got annoyed with Harry being blamed for petrifying people. I don't remember having a problem with it in the novel, but here I was boggling. The film doesn't explain or justify. They just expect it to be plausible that Harry's being accused of using Medusa superpowers. Hang on. Then, on top of that, Harry himself buys this and keeps protesting to authority figures that he hasn't done things of which he's blatantly incapable. What a load of codswallop. Of course he didn't do it! You get the impression that Harry's reaction to seeing a supernova would be to protest "It wasn't me!"
Why didn't Harry tell Dumbledore about hearing the snake voice? Yes, I realise Hermione had told him not to, but come on. It's Dumbledore. In the book, Rowling sold this to me. In the film, though, Harry looks like a moron again.
I hate the CGI owl reaction shot. Try driving a locomotive up an owl's arse one day and see if it just sits there and slightly widens its eyes.
There's a Big Finish dialogue moment. "Your bird may have blinded the basilisk, but it can still hear you!" Theoretically we've just seen this happen, but... well, children are watching.
The last scene is stupid ("As a school treat, all exams have been cancelled!") and has a painfully American "everyone stand up and cheer" conclusion. It's not just me calling it that, by the way. Tomoko called it "American" with zero prompting and she's not even a native English speaker. That's the franchise's most cringeworthy scene, I think, although it's funnier on rewatching when you realise the person everyone's going apeshit for is Hagrid. No, not Harry, Ron or Hermione. Everyone at Hogwarts is creaming their jeans about the giant hairy weirdo who keeps smuggling killer monsters into a school.
What's more, the scene had been written to be still more saccharine. Hermione was meant to hug Harry and Ron, but Emma Watson found that too embarrassing and so Chris Columbus let her change it. What the children replaced it with is a true note in what's otherwise a lazy, under-imagined last scene and particularly interesting if you know how the characters will eventually end up.
Crabbe and Goyle seeing nothing suspicious about cakes hanging in mid-air. They eat them. They're drugged. Too Dumb To Live. At least in the book the cakes weren't levitating.
I similarly dislike the "didn't know you could read" gag. Admittedly it's funny and Felton plays it well, but I personally have trouble believing that Goyle could be illiterate and in his second year of study at Hogwarts.
That's not a negligible list. Idiot plotting and an annoying ending are bad things in a movie.
Frivolous observation 1: when Tom Riddle gets SPOILERED, Tomoko thought it looked like a Doctor Who regeneration. (Cardiff Who was still a few years off in 2002, though.)
Frivolous observation 2: the speeder bike chase during the Quidditch match even uses some of John Williams's music from the speeder chase scene in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Frivolous observation 3: there's an episode of Have I Got News for You where they discuss the offence allegedly taken by Vladimir Putin over his similarity to Dobby the House Elf. Please, let this be true.
In short, I still really like this film, but I have to take a few lumps to do so. It's significantly worse than is predecessor, which isn't offering up hostages to nitpicking fortune. One often sees it said or implied that Columbus's two Harry Potter films are identical, but they're really not. That film's only problems are the acting (not worse than here) and the plot structure (eccentric, but for me of a feature). Nonetheless this one's still a lovely, rich, luscious experience with more personality than is generally recognised. It's not afraid to be brutal, spider-horrifying or unglamorous. That's one dog-ugly phoenix. This film has a minor and laudable fondness for ugly design, I think. (See also the mandrakes.) Some of the CGI's a bit thin, especially in action moments, but I don't care about that. It still has all the charm of the early Harry Potters and it's also funny. It's the one with Kenneth Branagh. I laughed aloud at Dobby's self-harm and the Snape vs. Lockhart "duel".
I love it, despite its warts. Harry Potter rules.