Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second installment of the now-legendary Harry Potter film series, is a far better tale than its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint all seem much more comfortable in their roles, and while it is fun to return to Hogwarts once more, it is more so to dive deep into a plot involving one the school’s own founders, whose sinister intentions might just include killing off a bunch of students. At last, we see a challenge worthy of our young heroes’ talents, as they strike off on their own to find out what is causing mayhem at the school and to decipher the cryptic riddle at the heart of it all. Meanwhile, Harry suffers an existential crisis: maybe he is more like the evil Lord Voldemort than he realizes. How he handles that uncertainty marks the first true steps of his heroic journey.
Along the way, we are shown more fascinating details of what makes the Wizarding World tick, including a flying Ford Anglia, a sentient willow tree, a house elf named Dobby, and a sagely spider whose predatory brood very nearly devours Ron and Harry. At the end of the day, we see that indeed, Lord Voldemort is behind the wicked scheme threatening the school, but Harry—thanks in no small part to his steadfast loyalty to school headmaster Albus Dumbledore—saves the day and slays the dreadful monster lurking beneath the very halls of Hogwarts. Great stuff.
But there is something deeper going on in this story which sets a thematic tone we will see again and again in the saga’s later chapters. We meet our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart (played with fantastic bombast by Kenneth Branagh), who turns out to be total fraud. We see Lucius Malfoy not only involve an innocent child in an evil plan. And we see the Ministry of Magic wrongly imprison poor Hagrid, the school’s bumbling but harmless groundskeeper. Hagrid is briefly sent to Azkaban, the magical version of Alcatraz, and from what we shall learn of the place, five minutes is too long a stay there if you do not deserve it. And Hagrid surely does not.
By the end of the story, Harry, Hermione and Ron don’t just solve the eponymous mystery of the Chamber of Secrets, but they also prove Hagrid’s innocence. There is a touching scene at the end when Hagrid comes back to the school, his good name restored. He is greeted with cheers from the students themselves, and as Hagrid wipes tears from his cheeks at this show of loyalty, our own eyes might well up, too.
What we see in this moment of truth is that in Harry Potter, there might be monsters lurking in the backyard of the school. And there might be evil curses housed beneath it. And there might be a villain searching for some way to come back to power. But despite all that, there is a more pressing, and more real danger facing our young heroes: Adults.
Harry, Hermione and Ron might be heroic and talented, but they are still just children with zero authority, stuck in a world of grown-ups who don’t always believe them, or worse, prove themselves unworthy of their trust. Lockhart isn’t just an imposter, he assaults Ron and Harry to keep his secret. Lucius Malfoy isn’t just a snide aristocrat, he is a craven victimizer of children. The Ministry of Magic—and boy, will we see this writ large later—is more concerned with law than justice, and carts off an innocent man (well, half-giant) to jail, mainly to get people to stop asking questions.
Even worse, we see for the first time the bitter fruit of the Wizarding World’s own kind of racism, exemplified by the cruel hatreds of Salazar Slytherin himself—one of the great founders of Hogwarts. Everywhere you look, there is the evidence of past crimes committed by the adults of this world, and it is for their various children to inherit them and to decide how they will respond, without much guidance to go on. The Heir of Slytherin more than a villainous abstraction. When the sins of one’s parents transfer to their kin, then there is not just one Heir; there is a world full of them.
There is such a strain of injustice under the surface here, that it makes the heroics of this story’s children that much more important. Adults will often let you down, over a long enough period of time. But the loyalty of a child is inviolate. Until, of course, they eventually grow up and become part of the problem. Such is the tragedy of childhood, that it always must end. But until it does, the greatest heroics we shall ever see are by those too young to understand why what they do is so very, very special.