But at 161 protracted minutes, Chamber of Secrets is a bit unwieldy for a children's film, and with its peculiar dearth of wit -- the most amusing line is mewled by a ghost (awesome Shirley Henderson) offering Harry the use of her toilet -- it probably won't keep discerning adults hooked throughout. Once again, people's director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and klunky screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) cleave very tightly to Rowling's narrative, cutting loose only to compress her character-rich exposition or gussy up her trim action scenes, but that's not the glitch. The problem-- magnified by unshakable déjà vu -- is that in this now-familiar setting, the characters engage us largely in spite of their cinematic handlers' perfunctory treatment, not because of it.
That said, from the soaring opening notes of John Williams' magnificent theme, the magic is back. We descend upon a ghastly prefab subdivision (think Time Bandits) to find Dickensian orphan and fledgling wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) held hostage by his grotesque, straight-out-of-Roald Dahl foster family (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling). All he wants to do is return to his true home: Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Enter Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones, CG-animated as this film's Jar Jar Binks or Gollum), a grody little house elf who inconveniently appears in Harry's spartan bedroom to warn him that he'll be doomed if he returns to Hogwarts. Imagine a Martin Short clone informing you that he's ensured your loneliness and detachment from your alma mater by purloining all the letters sent to you by your friends. You'd beat the crap out of him, right? Well, Harry's not the belligerent sort, and besides, Dobby illustrates a perverse predilection for self-abuse, so the message is the point: Grave -- if logistically confounding -- danger is afoot.
After narrowly escaping with earnest friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in Ron's dad's flying, turquoise Ford Anglia, Harry's adventure begins. As with any series, neophytes may find themselves grasping desperately for handles as characters and concepts whiz past, but brief stops at the funky Weasley abode and the creepy, gothed-out Knockturn Alley keep both Harry and us on our toes. At the magic market Diagon Alley, many key players light up the screen, including Hogwarts' coarse, lovable groundskeeper, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry's decreasingly presumptuous cohort Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and the wildly narcissistic Professor Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, who'd gleefully upstage God). Nasty folk also ring in the new school year, including little Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his malevolent dad, Lucius (Jason Isaacs), who may have summoned Dobby's warning.
Once at Hogwarts, production designer Stuart Craig's grand edifice of dreams and nightmares, the plot becomes both more convoluted and more episodic as whimsical lessons continue under the tutelage of professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Sprout (Miriam Margolyes) as well as headmaster Albus Dumbledore (goodnight, Richard Harris, genius actor). The pacing is club-footed, but the visuals -- from zooming aerial Quidditch to loads of weird bogeys and transformations -- are utterly sensational.
The legacy of Harry Potter in popular culture remains to be seen, but the film of Chamber of Secrets is a welcome delivery of childlike wonder for a planet of ever-increasing ugliness. It's not such a whimsical place, but perhaps movies like this can help set that right.