Harry Potter works magically

“Dickens! I forgot to turn the oven off, Harry!”

“Dickens! I forgot to turn the oven off, Harry!”

Rated 4.0

Writer J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard journeys into darker territory in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets than he did in last year’s Sorcerer’s Stone, and the results are often magnificent. Rather than being a long-winded introduction of characters like the previous film, the second movie gets straight into a meaty story involving evil forces and Harry’s progression as a master wizard. This is a much better movie.

In my humble opinion, the first film didn’t translate into fun. The visuals and pacing didn’t combine into a unified, forceful picture. It felt like a showcase for Harry Potter merchandise, and director Chris Columbus proved incapable of handling an epic production. Such is not the case the second time out, in what is arguably Columbus’ best film.

Harry returns for a second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He does this despite warnings from Dobby, a house elf with a penchant for self-punishment, who shows up in Potter’s bedroom. Harry is enduring a dreary summer with his aunt, uncle and cousin, the Dursleys, imprisoned in his bedroom.

Dobby’s warning of second-year troubles at Hogwarts registers with Harry, but he prefers the uncertainty of supernatural horrors to spending more time with the cruel Muggles. Classmate Ron Weasley (the fantastically faced Rupert Grint) rescues Harry in his dad’s flying Ford, and the adventures begin.

It’s not long after his arrival at Hogwarts that Harry notices evil voices and strange goings on. A nasty force resides in the hidden Chamber of Secrets, and it is petrifying students and cats who see it. Harry, Ron and star-student Hermione (cute as a button Emma Watson) set out to unlock the secrets of the Chamber, and prevent Hogwarts from being closed forever.

It’s impressive how the lead actors have grown since last year’s adventures. Radcliffe has become a distinctive, appealing Harry, able to carry the weight of such a beloved character. Grint emerges as a winning sidekick, an excellent source of comic relief. Watson maintains the mature charm she displayed in the original.

New characters thrown into the mix include Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, celebrity wizard and author of Magical Me. Branagh’s portrayal of the egomaniacal David Copperfield of Hogwarts is his most interesting screen work since ‘96’s Hamlet. Dobby is a computer-animated delight, seamlessly incorporated into the movie and a great improvement over other CGI characters like the dreadful Jar Jar Binks.

Visual treats include the flying Ford, which has an exciting race with a train, and a super-amped game of Quidditch, a marked improvement over the first film’s tired match. Especially memorable is a scene where students are pulling up herbs called mandrakes, which look like screaming babies below their plant-like tops.

The film is full of scary monsters and super creeps, including a climatic battle with a serpentine beast. Parents should be advised that young Potter fans could be made miserable by the steady stream of snakes, spiders and monster trees. Seeing and hearing Harry talk with a hissy snake voice, and cryptic messages scribbled in blood on the walls are among the many aspects that might make the film inappropriate for young ones. The movie has garnered a PG rating, but it has some legitimate, hard PG-13 scares.

After seeing the first film in the series, I wasn’t very excited about the next chapter. After watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I’m all jazzed for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, due out in 2004. With this superior sequel, there’ll be no Harry Potter bashing this year.