Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets Movie Review

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In his second big-screen outing, adolescent wizard Harry Potter is blessed with enough cinematic magic to overcome several of the very same problems that left last year's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" feeling a little protracted and rambling.

Sure "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" spends twice as much screen time on atmosphere and adventure scenes than on plot and character. But this time around every episode seems relevant, which is a vast improvement over last year's film, bloated as it was with Quidditch matches and monster moments that didn't advance the plot one iota.

Returning director Chris Columbus retains the enchanted ambiance as Harry heads to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his second year of instruction in the black arts. But nothing is ever easy for our young hero, as unseen forces seem to be conspiring against him -- not the least of which is some kind of elusive beast that's loose in Hogwarts' halls, turning students to stone.

Legend has it that this beast could only be freed from a hidden chamber within the campus castle upon the arrival of an evil wizard's "true heir," and that it would destroy all those who aren't "pureblood." Who this heir could be becomes the film's central mystery, which may be solved only if Harry can find the Chamber of Secrets before the whole school is petrified.

Thirteen-year-old David Radcliffe shows considerably more presence in the movie's title role this time out, inviting the audience into his thought processes and building his character and confidence. His young co-stars -- Emma Watson as the brassy, brainy Hermione Granger and Rupert Grint as redheaded misfit Ron Weasley -- not only keep pace with Radcliffe, fleshing out their roles considerably, but also hold their own against the film's fantastic adult cast.

Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Miriam Margolyes, Robbie Coltrane, the late Richard Harris and a veritable who's-who of other British thespians return as members of Hogwarts' eccentric witch and wizard faculty. This year they're joined by Kenneth Branagh, taking absolute delight in his role as Gilderoy Lockhart, a comically conceited dandy in mock-Shakespearean finery who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts but is secretly little more than a second-rate magician. Lockhart's eventual relevance to the plot is poorly communicated, but Branagh's performance makes him a gas to have around regardless. Also making his "Potter" debut is Jason Isaacs ("The Tuxedo," "The Patriot") in a wonderfully teeth-clenching turn as the nefarious, affluent, white-maned warlock father of Harry's cruel school rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).

The plot of "Chamber of Secrets" becomes quite complex, what with a crash-course in vexatiously vague Hogwarts history (everything is a legend or a rumor, there are few solid facts), ghosts of ex-students providing clues and dangers, and spiders in the forbidden forest behind the school playing a time-consuming but ultimately irrelevant role in Harry's investigation. Yet the story remains easy to follow, despite quite a few distractions, like flying cars, flying accusations, lots of jargon likely lost on the uninitiated, and the fact that everyone seems to speak in riddles, as if they want to drag the film out even longer (two hours and 41 minutes, anyone?) instead of offering up simple answers to important questions.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Columbus clearly still feel an obligation to the fans to include as much from J.K. Rowling's book as possible, but the extraneous stuff is much better integrated in "Chamber of Secrets" than it was in "Sorcerer's Stone." Only in the last 10 minutes does the movie begin to drag, and then only because Columbus is too indulgent with the epilogue. A larger problem may be that the climactic battle with a gigantic serpentine basilisk is much scarier than the PG rating lets on. This is not a movie for kids under 10.

Darker and scarier than its predecessor (don?t take kids under 10), "Harry Potter 2" does have dozens of nit-picky little plot holes that could have been plugged fairly easily had Columbus cared to try a little harder to make the movie stand up to the scrutiny of those who haven't read the books as well as those who have. But if the "Potter" pictures continue to improve the way this one bests its predecessor, the inevitable next two installments could be true kid flick classics.

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Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG, Opened: Friday, November 15, 2002

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