Reliable second instalment that gives you exactly what you expect, but somehow lacks that certain. . . well. . . magic

This second Harry Potter film is more dutiful than enchanting, terribly episodic and lacking the spark of imagination that might have made it an exhilarating treat
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Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Alan Rickman, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, and Rupert Grint
Duration: 161 minutes

In his second film adventure, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is still a resourceful and engaging lad. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry remains a magical kingdom of state-of-the-art visual effects. His young pals - the earnest though easily frightened Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and preternaturally beautiful and brainy Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) - stand fast in their loyalty to the film's young hero.

Fans of the first movie and, of course, J.K. Rowling's series of children's books, will embrace Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with the same enthusiasm they did the first film, released a year ago. For the casual cinema-goer, though, some of the charm of Harry and Hogwarts has diminished.

The sense of discovery, that initial encounter with the stories' vivid characters and whimsical parallel universe, is missing. In its stead comes frantic activity. Characterization takes a back seat to action, and "magic" serves as the author's escape hatch: Whenever Harry and his sidekicks stumble into danger, a flying car or charmed phoenix materializes to save the moment. None of which will damage the bottom line: this Warner Bros. release, again adapted by Steve Kloves and directed by Chris Columbus, will suffer little if any erosion from the box-office magic of the first film.

Most of the adult actors - a British hall of acting fame that includes the late Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw - return, albeit in ephemeral appearances that fail to deepen one's understanding of their characters. Two new characters, though, are dubious additions.

One is Kenneth Branagh's preening Gilderoy Lockhart, a narcissist and charlatan of the first order, who takes over as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. This maladroit magician, more interested in penning his memoirs than practicing witchcraft, is an amusing creation but such a one-note cartoon that he swiftly wears out his welcome. A much worse irritant is a neurotic elf named Dobby, a CG cousin of Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks, who incessantly grovels and punishes himself with self-abuse worthy of a medieval flagellant.

After the obligatory opening scenes in the world of the Muggles (humans with no magical abilities), Harry returns for his second year at Hogwarts with difficulty. Finding the rail station's invisible portal to the Hogwarts Express mysteriously blocked, Harry and Ron hop into his parents' flying Ford Anglia for a wild ride to Hogwarts.

Soon the school falls under a dark cloud. A chilly voice whispers from the walls to Harry in a language he surprisingly can understand. Students are found "petrified," warnings appear on walls in blood and a monster moves about the school unimpeded. Apparently, someone has opened the legendary, though hidden, Chamber of Secrets.

Harry, Ron and Hermoine's struggle to get to the bottom of these frightening incidents is not helped when a rumour spreads that Harry is the long-dreaded heir of Slytherin, one of the school's founders, who created the Chamber of Secrets. Then from a secret diary springs a spirit, Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson), who offers to show Harry what lies behind a mystifying incident that took place at the school 50 years before.

Again, all of this takes place in a tradition-minded British boarding school where staircases and portraits move, giant spiders and rambunctious spells lurk and fretful ghosts, including a new one in Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), drift through chambers.

And again, the filmmakers fear to tamper with the holy writ of Rowling. Rather than shape her material for cinematic purposes, Kloves and Columbus retain the most tangential subplots and weakest characters. What plays like an intriguing side excursion on the printed page merely gums up the works in a film that at 161 minutes feels as bloated as an overfed child wobbling away from the Christmas table.

More than ever, the film must rely on its technical crew. Nick Dudman's imaginative creature and makeup effects, Roger Platt's painterly cinematography, Lindy Hemming's flamboyant costumes and Stuart Craig's labyrinthine sets that melt into many visual and special effects all convincingly usher us into the realm of the fantastic. Thankfully, John Williams has toned down this episode's score, so it playfully supports the action rather than swamps it in melodic overkill.

DVD Extras: 19 deleted scenes; interviews with author J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves; interviews with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), Emma Watson (Hermione) and other cast members; crystal-clear, self-guided tours; still galleries, and much more.

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Read review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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