Has it been a year already? Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the next installment in the Potter-movie-mania that began last November with the much-anticipated release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. That mania had more to do with the hoopla surrounding the film than with the film itself, which was a rather staid and literal-minded transcription of J. K. Rowling's marvelous megaseller. As it turned out, Lord of the Rings, that pretender to the holiday-kids'-movie throne, ended up being the real deal -- a wildly imaginative fantasia that went way beyond a rote duplication of Tolkien's text. Peter Jackson's sequel to Lord of the Rings doesn't open until December 18, but that film, and not the flying pixies and slithery basilisks and sorcerers in Chamber of Secrets, would seem to be Harry's true adversary. For there to be a fair contest between the two films, this new Harry Potter installment should have been far more transporting than it turns out to be. But, as directed by Chris Columbus, it's only marginally better than his last foray into Potterland. Commercially, this lack of inspiration may not matter much at the box office -- The Sorcerer's Stone, after all, outgrossed Lord of the Rings -- but it still represents a lost opportunity to give children, not to mention adults, a movie experience that would widen their eyes as the justly beloved Rowling books did.
Chamber of Secrets brings Harry back to Hogwarts for his second year, where he faces a dire terror threatening the students. It's being touted by the filmmakers as darker and speedier than the first outing -- it still runs about two and a half hours -- and I suppose that assessment is accurate: At least we aren't slogging through reams of exposition anymore. Columbus and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, don't feel obliged to be quite as moment-to-moment faithful to Rowling, and some of the set pieces have a grotesque beauty, such as the sequence where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) crash their enchanted car into the branches of a willow tree that proceeds to wallop them mercilessly. The scenes of Quidditch -- a dive-bomber cross between croquet and rugby -- look a lot less cheesy than they did in the first film. And the set designs of Stuart Craig, which include dark grottoes of giant spiders and the heebie-jeebie-inducing Chamber of Secrets itself, are wonderfully evocative. Columbus doesn't seem to know what to do with these marvels, though. Too often they function as roiling backdrops to the foreground dullness.
Considering how many famously skilled and funny actors inhabit Chamber of Secrets -- Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, Miriam Margolyes, Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese, and, in his last movie appearance, Richard Harris -- it's amazing how few performing thrills there are. These people are all very good, but most of them are just not around long enough to make a major impression. On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh, as Hogwarts's ridiculously vain professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, is around too much. Branagh doesn't seem to comprehend that a true narcissist is unaware of his own narcissism. The young cast members, reprising their roles, have become more proficient, but I miss from the first film the amateurish ardor of Grint and Emma Watson, playing Hermione. (Watson is regrettably absent from most of the film's final third.) They're still fun to watch, but by my reckoning, they've got maybe one more film in them before they enter that awful twilight zone of the superrannuated child actor. That's even more true for Radcliffe, who seems to be rapidly aging into a stripling Peter Sellers. A big bright spot: The next Harry Potter film will be directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who made not only Y Tu Mamá También but A Little Princess, one of the greatest of all children's films. If anyone can bring entrancement to this franchise, he can.