Like its predecessor, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets works perfectly well as a cinematic corollary to J.K. Rowling's adored children's fantasy series. Quidditch, self-loathing house elves, and basilisks all make it to the screen intact, a well-chosen cast helps make the wild notions convincing, and director Chris Columbus presents it all in an attractive, thoroughly watchable package. But try imagining a universe in which the Harry Potter series existed only in film form. Would audiences still find themselves transported by such thinly drawn characters? Would the imaginations still leap for the nonstop assault of impressively realized but creatively pedestrian special effects? And would the two-and-a-half-hours-plus trek toward an unmasking straight out of Scooby Doo seem quite so satisfying? So far, the series has relied on viewers' familiarity with Rowling's characters to fill in blanks that other movies would have to fill for themselves. As before, Daniel Radcliffe gives an assured performance in the lead, but he's given so little time away from after-hours sleuthing and confrontations with bugaboos that he's mostly a sympathetic character because he's playing Harry Potter, not because of any moment within the movie itself. It doesn't help that Chamber is pretty much all business from the opening shot, trading in Stone's sometimes-clunky exposition for full-steam-ahead action that whisks Radcliffe back to Hogwarts for another year of intrigue and spellcasting with scarcely a moment to collect his syllabi. In the space between the scenes of kids screaming amid special effects, the grownups have the best moments. Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, and the late Richard Harris all reprise roles from the previous film, and Kenneth Branagh has a funny part as a self-obsessed celebrity charlatan. The movie could use more of him, and of droll touches like John Cleese's unfailingly polite, nearly headless ghost, but overall, Chamber is very much in the spirit of John Williams' score: a succession of irritatingly familiar swooping climaxes hammered out at double fortissimo. It's enough to make viewers of a certain temperament want to curl up with a good book.
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