If you liked the first Harry Potter movie, you're certain to like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Structurally, the two movies are very similar: 1) They both begin with Harry at the home of his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, where he's neglected and shunned; 2) They both involve a journey to Hogwarts School; 3) They both introduce us again to the faculty and the various factions of students; 4) They both pit Harry Potter against Draco Malfoy; 5) They both involve some dastardly goings-on that threaten to disrupt the school; and 6) They both lead to a special room/chamber where Harry Potter must confront the forces of darkness in order to save himself, his friends, and the school. Also, as in the first film, almost all of the filmmaking wit has gone into the visuals. Not much dialogue is memorable and the storytelling has a certain pre-manufactured, inconsequential quality. But those visual are so impressive that they compensate (at least in part) for the movie's slightness and the over-familiarity of the story.
Director Chris Columbus and his special effects crew (led by Jim Mitchell and Nick Davis) have envisioned a marvelous world of forever moving stairways, malevolent forests, thrilling aerial sequences (both by way of Quidditch brooms and Ron Weasley's flying car), and surprising classroom lessons (which involve a gaggle of freed pixies and a few pointers on how to repot Mandakes). These settings and sequences are created with a dazzling mix of computer generated imagery and elaborate sets. The visuals are so good that it's no exaggeration to say this movie merits mention alongside The Wizard of Oz as one of the most imaginatively designed children's movies ever made. But while The Wizard of Oz benefited from tight story construction and a clear over-riding goal (to get Dorothy back home), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a more clumsy and cumbersome adventure. Each sequence in The Chamber of Secrets is designed to unleash a new key visual element and eventually the visuals end up overpowering the rest of the movie: they're what the movie is really about. And Harry Potter and the rest of Hogwarts School are just the means for Columbus and his staff to fixate on their real interest -- which is realized by way of CGI and animatronics.
Because the movie is designed around its visuals, the storytelling is revealed in episodic spurts, and together the episodes don't acquire a compelling sense of momentum. Evidence of this cumbersome storytelling is the movie's length - two hours and 40 minutes. This has to be one of the longest children's films ever made. While The Lord of the Rings, another long movie, was aimed at an average audience age of approximately 15 years, The Chamber of Secrets is aimed at an average age of approximately eight years. That means it's less brutal and less dark than J.R.R. Tolkien's tale of wizards and hobbits. And with that lighter tone goes much of the tension. The outcome is never really in doubt. Unlike the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, who really shake up the audience's faith that everything will work out right in the end (what with the scarecrow's stuffing left scattered throughout the forest and Dorothy locked away in a forbidding castle). But the stakes aren't nearly so high here and that makes this movie a pleasant but relatively inconsequential adventure.
What's new this time around? Well, you'll find Kenneth Branagh as the egotistical but relatively inept Professor Gilderoy Lockhart. The girl students fall for his charms while the boys roll their eyes in despair. Also on hand is a new computer generated character, a house elf named "Dobby" who causes Harry some grief. And you'll find a few other additions, but you'll want to discover them on your own. This is the type of movie that should be allowed to reveal its secrets without advance press spoiling the efforts.
Even with its storytelling shortcomings, The Chamber of Secrets is still a fun way to spend an afternoon, and with its massive running time, it's definitely an afternoon movie, not an evening one. It's invigorating to see a movie that presents academia in such a warm and pleasant light. Learning is fun in the Harry Potter movies and with any luck that glow will carry over into the decidedly less magical academics of traditional grade school classrooms. That's what makes these movies and author J.K. Rowling's books such a welcome addition to the personal libraries of kids around the world.