"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is deja vu all over again, and while that is a cliche, nothing could be more appropriate. It's likely that whatever you thought of the first production -- pro or con -- you'll likely think of this one. Still, even partisans of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" may well be put off by parts of the new film.
"Chamber of Secrets" displays such zeal for re-creating the book's more grotesque aspects, from man-eating spiders to venom-dripping monster serpents, that it is sure to rattle the cages of the smallest viewers, sending them under their seats if not out of the theater.
For the Harry Potter novels have a kind of magic that it is beyond the powers of these films to duplicate. The darkness that invades "Chamber of Secrets" underlines how well the books managed to exactly balance good and evil, dark and light, so that within their pages you seemed to be experiencing both at the same time. Not so here.
Because "Chamber of Secrets" can't seem to get the balance right, it ends up broadly overdoing things on both ends of the spectrum. The film's scary moments are too monstrous and its happy times have too much idiotic beaming, making the film feel like the illegitimate offspring of "Alien" and "The Absent-Minded Professor."
It's fortunate that Alfonso Cuaron is set to take over the series from Chris Columbus and direct the next installment, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban;" with Columbus in charge the J.K. Rowling books are fated never to get completely satisfying film versions. The original material is wonderful, but what's clearer after two films than one is that Columbus' cinematic treatments are unlikely to rise above the acceptable level of expensive copies to become truly memorable in their own right.
"Chamber of Secrets," like its predecessor, is intelligently cast and makes good use of behind-the-camera talent like returning screenwriter Steve Kloves and new cinematographer Roger Pratt. And the problem has never been anyone's intentions toward the material; "Chamber's" two-hour, 41-minute length shows that, if anything, the films are more concerned than they should be about leaving something out.
To give the devil its further due, "Chamber" has a bit of the magic of the Rowling originals, mostly in its ability to reproduce some of the book's peripheral tricks. It's amusing to see the Whomping Willow, the screaming mandrake plants and the bad-tempered Howler sent by Mrs. Weasley to chastise the misbehaving Ron. Truly, all that money can buy has been bought, and though that is an accomplishment of a sort, it is not great filmmaking.
The acting in "Chamber of Secrets" is a similarly mixed bag. While it is charming to see how appropriately Daniel Radcliffe as Harry and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as inseparable pals Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger have matured in a year, the eagerness of Grint's Weasley to continually make "Little Rascals"-type faces is unfortunate.
As for the adults, Alan Rickman seems already tired of his role as Professor Snape, while Maggie Smith appears to be getting more used to being Professor McGonagall. Of the newcomers, who include Jason Isaacs as the villainous Lucius Malfoy, the most satisfying acting is done by, of all people, Kenneth Branagh.
As celebrity author Gilderoy Lockhart, Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Branagh does some of his best film work in years, bringing the same kind of pleasure to the part of a self-absorbed and fatuous fop that Robbie Coltrane brings to the stalwart giant Hagrid.
The plot of "Chamber" begins when an annoying house-elf named Dobby pleads with Harry not to return to Hogwarts if he values his life. Once back at the school, Harry and his pals have to contend with petrified fellow students and writings on the wall that ominously proclaim, "The Chamber of Secrets Has Been Opened. Enemies of the Heir, Beware."
This all unfolds capably enough until the appearance of Aragog, a 9-foot spider with an 18-foot leg span, and a dreadful snake known as the Basilisk. To be fair, these creatures appear in the book as well, but it is one thing to read about them and another to actually see them on the big screen, a difference the filmmakers, without a sense of what is fitting in a film like this, should have been sensitive to but were not.
The most memorable moments in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" involve not some expensive special effect but the unplanned poignancy of Richard Harris' performance, the last of his long career, as headmaster Albus Dumbledore.
Perhaps as an acting choice, perhaps because of the effects of the illness that eventually took his life, Harris plays Dumbledore with a quavering but resolute frailty that gives the character an effective gravity. His speech about the life span of his beloved phoenix, Fawkes, one of those creatures that "burst into flames when it is time for them to die," provides an unintentional valedictory to an impressive career.
MPAA rating: PG, for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language.
Times guidelines: There are sequences that are more grotesque and scary than parents may expect.
Daniel Radcliffe ... Harry Potter
Rupert Grint ... Ron Weasley
Emma Watson ... Hermione Granger
A Heyday Films/1492 Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Chris Columbus. Producer David Heyman. Executive producer David Barron. Screenplay Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Cinematographer Roger Platt. Editor Peter Honess. Costumes Lindy Hemming. Music John Williams. Production design Stuart Craig. Supervising art director Neil Lamont. Set decorator Stephenie McMillan. Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes.
In general release.