Just as the J.K. Rowling books keep getting better and more exciting so do the movies based on them. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had the unenviable task of introducing everything but with Chamber of Secrets you march right into the adventure headlong. After spending another miserable summer with the Dursleys our boy Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is anxious to start his second year at Hogwarts but a house elf named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) warns him he'll be in grave danger if he goes back. He returns anyway and sure enough once Harry joins up with his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) weird things start to happen at school--one of which being that students are somehow being turned into stone. Pretty soon it becomes clear the Chamber of Secrets--a legendary hidden chamber of evil built by one of Hogwarts' founders the nasty Salazar Slytherin--has been opened. Legend says the chamber can only be opened by the true heir of Slytherin and once it is the beast within will be unleashed to purge the school of those undeserving to study there. In other words it'll get rid of wizards and witches who come from non-magic heritage (or Muggles as they're called). This puts Hermione in particular danger since she comes from Muggle parents. Yikes. Harry has his hands full trying to figure this one out especially since he is suspected as the one who opened the chamber.
The natural rapport of the young actors Radcliffe Grint and Watson comes shining through as the trio become more comfortable walking around in their characters' shoes. Radcliffe gets to do a lot more in Chamber of Secrets than just stand around wide-eyed and slack-jawed as he did in Sorcerer's Stone and all three have definitely improved as actors (but there is still some work to do). If you were to choose the best of the three it would have to be Watson. She has a few truly outstanding moments especially in her tender scene with Hagrid (the always good Robbie Coltrane) who tells her being Muggle-born has nothing to do with being a great witch. Great casting has also been a key element to the success of the Harry Potter movies so the actors chosen to play the two new characters introduced in Chamber of Secrets are simply perfect. The delightful Kenneth Branagh has fun playing Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart a vain blowhard who knows almost nothing about wizardry but pretends to while Jason Isaacs (The Patriot) oozes as Lucius Malfoy a malevolent wizard who was once a follower of You-Know-Who (Harry's nemesis Lord Voldemort. Oops! I said it). He is also father to bully Draco Malfoy played by Tom Felton who also needs a little more work in the acting department. Of course watching the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts' headmaster Albus Dumbledore is indeed sad. It'll be hard to replace him.
Chris Columbus just gets it. Either he somehow channels J.K. Rowling or perhaps is secretly part-wizard himself but Columbus manages to capture the essence of the books to a tee. With Sorcerer's Stone he was partially weighed down by the story's exposition but with Chamber of Secrets he's set free. Columbus utilizes more special effects darker imagery and plays up the funnier moments. If you are a fan of the books you will marvel at Columbus' uncanny ability to visualize exactly what things looks like in Harry Potter's world. The digitally created house elf Dobby is just as you would imagine him with torn clothes and huge eyes. As is the flying car the walloping Whomping Willow the creepy spiders' nest the ugly baby Mandrake plant--all of it is done with exquisite detail. Still the film is not completely perfect. Some moments don't ring as true especially in the ending and it runs a little long. If you aren't a literary follower you might find yourself looking at your watch a few times during the course of the movie. But it's fleeting because soon you are caught up again by the next exciting chain of events. Columbus is passing the baton to director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) for the next Potter adventure Prisoner of Azkaban because he wants a break from all that magic stuff. I bet he'll miss it.