OKAY, SO the plot -- about a sinister force at large at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry -- is slow and unwieldy. And few of the characters get as much time to flower as they did in the first film. And there may not be a human bladder in this good land that can outlast the running time (more than 2 1/2 hours). And I sure could have done without a new character named Dobby the House Elf who makes me think of Jar Jar Binks.
But for the most part, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," adapted once again from J.K. Rowling's book by Steve Kloves and directed by Chris Columbus, still affords many pleasures. I think most viewers, especially the younger ones, will reap its joys. And besides, who would stand in the way of "Harry Potter" and all those kids and parents queued around the blocks of every multiplex?
Certainly not little Muggle me.
Another plus: an amusing performance from Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, the self-legendizing new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, whose narcissist autobiographies are endless. The movie also marks one of Richard Harris's final screen appearances. As Albus Dumbledore, he's wonderfully graceful.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has had a miserable summer with his Muggle family, the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw) and their miserable son, Dudley (Harry Melling). Someone seems to have blocked all correspondence with his school pals Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).
Turns out it's Jar Jar, I mean Dobby, a computer-generated elf (voice of Toby Jones), who can't reveal his full agenda but wants Harry to know he should not return for his sophomore year.
And why is this? Something's lurking in the bowels of this British boarding school. (Apart from the obviously entrenched fear of changing one word of the original J.K. Rowling novel.) It's a nasty presence whose targets are mudbloods, or students of non-magical background. (If you sense a mini-metaphor for racial intolerance, full marks to you.)
Perhaps it has to do with grim, bottle-blond student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his equally frosty-noggined Dad, Lucius (Jason Isaacs)? The eye of suspicion is even turned toward our own H. Potter, who often seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
But enough of the plot, let's get to other things. Let's look at this movie as the glass half full rather than half empty. Sure, it's too bad that the funnier members of the cast, including Robbie Coltrane (as Hagrid), Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape), Griffiths and Julie Walters (Ron's Mom, Mrs. Weasley), are rendered into near-cameo players. And the less said about actor Grint's one-dimensional muggings, the better. But they're all in there, aren't they? Nothing from the book is left to wither away. That should please the vast reading audience that'll watch the movie.
It's also unfortunate that we're given shorter shrift with some of the first movie's memorable elements: Diagon Alley (where great wands can be bought), the high-flying game of Quidditch, Harry's cloak of invisibility and magic itself. (Harry runs afoul of magic transportation powder and speaks the language of snakes. Yet hardly produces a spell.) But we do get a taste of everything. Which should be enough to make everyone obey the movie's simple formula: Get in line.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (PG, 161 MINUTES) -- Contains some emotionally intense moments. Area theaters.