by Ed Symkus

The visit to Harry Potter's miserable home life is a mercifully quick one in the opening moments of the sequel (which is going to outdo the stunning blockbuster business of the first). Before anything beyond a mischievous sight gag or two is developed, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is visited by the quaking, diminutive house elf Dobby, rescued from his dreadful aunt and uncle by some young wizard pals, and returned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Which is, of course, the exact place Dobby had just warned him to stay away from.

Everyone is back for this return visit, including Harry's two closest chums, Ron (Rupert Grint, the actor with the second-most expressive face in the film) and Hermione (Emma Watson, the second-best actor in the film). Pretty much the whole school staff is back as well, from Dumbledore (alas, the final performance from the late Richard Harris) to McGonagall (Maggie Smith, who isn't given enough to do this time around). Joining the staff and the cast is the braggart character of Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, the best and funniest actor with the most expressive face in the film) as a teacher of defense against the dark arts.

The story is much more complicated -- and slightly longer -- than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, although not all that difficult to keep track of. The title kind of tells it all: The school is the site of a chamber of secrets, the door to which had been opened 50 years before, resulting in some dastardly business. Now it's been opened again, and animals and people around the rustic campus are suddenly becoming petrified -- not scared, but literally turned stiff. All bad fingers, and there are plenty of them, are pointing to the obviously innocent Harry, as bad fingers will in a film such as this. And Harry is caught up in finding out who's behind everything that's going wrong.

Being a film for kids, everything works out well in the end, but there's a somewhat tough road getting there. This installment isn't nearly as antiseptic or safe as the first. Chris Columbus (who did the first but will not do the next) is still a relatively white bread director, but he has let in many more of the dark edges that were created by author J.K. Rowling. Some of the film, in fact, is likely too intense for very young viewers (those age 8 and older should be fine). A scene in which one of the villains is violently dispatched via magic clearly depicts just how unpleasant his death is. And here's a warning for any arachnophobes: There's a long, icky, very scary spider sequence in which a couple of our heroes are referred to -- by one of the behemoth spiders -- as "fresh meat." And in a climactic set piece, a certain creature that's been regularly hinted at finally makes an appearance. No monster in any kids film has been bigger or more hideous -- or had sharper teeth.

The action moves along at a brisk clip, only getting bogged down when too much explanation is attempted or too many tongue-twisting names are used in casual conversation. And woven into the whole thing is a sense of impending doom. That's all broken up by appearances of such terrific effects as screaming mandrakes, Cornish pixies and life-saving phoenixes, and especially with a running gag about an accident-prone mail delivery owl. But some of the inventive effects, such as the inclusion of another airborne quidditch match, seemingly just for the sake of having another quidditch match, seem heavy-handed.

Trimming, but not eliminating most of the longer scenes would have helped the film move more quickly, though that's not always necessary. There's a great set piece that starts with an underlying feud between the ever-smiling Lockhart and the ever-scowling Snape (the golden-throated Alan Rickman), moves to the overt one between Harry and the sneering Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and ends up revealing Harry's ability to talk to snakes (which ends up having less to do with the plot than one might wish).

But, in all fairness, the reason that most of these scenes work pretty well, and that the piling on of the story's many complications doesn't get out of control, is that Columbus has developed a clear method of making the important parts of the story stick out. He also manages to keep a healthy balance between the fun stuff and the frightening stuff. The magic of the enterprise is that, in the end, it all feels totally magical.

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