leave a comment --Angel Cohn
Relieved of the burden of character introduction that fell to HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, this adaptation of J.K. Rowling's second novel is free to get off to a rollicking start. Fans have little reason to complain: Chris Columbus makes the novel's transformation into a big-budget feature look effortless, and the film's darker tone is more satisfying than that of the first, a somewhat forced happy ending notwithstanding. Following a brief sojourn with Harry's horrible muggle aunt and uncle ("muggle" being Potter-speak for a non-magical person), it's Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Harry's best pal from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to the rescue. Harry's visit with the boisterous Weasleys, a large brood of magically inclined redheads, is an eye-opener, but there are hints of trouble ahead when Harry and Ron miss the train back to school and "borrow" the Weasley's flying car. Their joyride leads to a terrifying encounter with a Whomping Willow tree and another with stern Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, in delightfully wicked mode). The two boys are reunited with their bossy pal, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Harry resumes his rivalry with snotty Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose bigoted attitude towards classmates who hail from muggle families is not the least bit improved. Mysterious events ensue, as they must. Students and animals are found petrified, Harry faces one life-threatening situation after another, and everything seems linked to a strange message written in blood: "The Chamber of Secrets has been opened." Ron and Harry find a cryptic diary that implicates Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the school's genial groundskeeper, and Harry makes the disturbing discovery that he has much in common with evil Lord Voldemort, who cast a long shadow over the first film. Though the fresh-faced students take center stage, the formidable cast of veterans make the most of their limited screen time, including the late Richard Harris as intimidating-yet-fair headmaster Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as stern Professor McGonagall, John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick, Julie Walters as kind-hearted Mrs. Weasley and Jason Isaacs as young Draco's conniving father. But it's Kenneth Branagh who steals the show, playing the new, narcissistic Defense of the Dark Arts instructor Gilderoy Lockhart, who in one telling moment glances at a canvas of himself painting a self-portrait, all three Lockharts flashing award-winning smiles. While this is just as long as the first film, more convincing special effects help make time fly, including several completely computer-generated characters like the mischievous house-elf Dobby and Professor Sprout's (Miriam Margolyes) mandrakes, a squirming and shrieking bunch of potato-shaped horrors that resemble botanical gremlins.