Thank goodness, thank Merlin's ghost, thank somebody for Kenneth Branagh. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the too-long, too-faithful adaptation (in a stick-in-the-mud sort of way) of the second J.K. Rowling book, the English actor arrives at Hogwarts School playing a vain, boastful charlatan of a professor. And guess what? He's funny.
Phew. After the scrupulously sober, soulless reenactment that was last year's inaugural Chris Columbus-directed Potter pic (what was it called again - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Snooze?), the sequel, at least, boasts a few good chuckles. As Gilderoy Lockhart, putative expert in the Defense Against the Dark Arts, Branagh displays a head of excessively blond, curly locks, and a feel-good narcissism that makes his ultimate exposure as a pompous, deceitful fool all the more satisfying.
And did I say he was funny?
The Chamber of Secrets begins with Master Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) older and froggier-voiced (look out, here comes puberty!) back at home among the "muggles. " More specifically, said muggles (that's humans to you and me) are the Dursleys - the pernicious uncle, aunt and cousin who reluctantly took young Harry in after his parents died. No longer dwelling in the closet beneath the stairs, Harry's been given a real bedroom, but he's just as miserable: no letters from his Hogwarts schoolmates, no love from his adoptive family.
Enter Dobby, a nervous little house-elf who warns the budding wizard not to return to Hogwarts - his life is at risk. But when a flying car shows up outside the window, driven by best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Harry wastes no time throwing himself, his trunk, and his pet owl into the vehicle. And off they go. The Chamber of Secrets - darker, scarier and somewhat better than Sorcerer's Stone - begins.
Director Columbus' long-ago mentoring at the hands of Steven Spielberg has left him with an incurable case of Phony Uplift and Manufactured Euphoria, and The Chamber of Secrets suffers for it. (Symptoms include an overreliance on blustery John Williams scores, a penchant for roller-coaster-like chase sequences, and a surfeit of snakes, spiders and sentiment. ) At times, this sequel feels more like Indiana Jones at Eton than an excursion into the realms of witchcraft and wand-waving - indeed, the whole long trip into the titular tomb, with its murky, serpent-infested caves, is as generic as The Mummy movies or a Lara Croft videogame.
There are also wasted opportunities with John Cleese and Shirley Henderson - two wonderfully distinctive actors who here play phantoms (quite literally) of their former selves. They are rendered as see-through ghosts, the special effects of which are anything but special.
But Chamber of Secrets does have its plusses, and its pleasures: Breakfast at the Weasleys' is a cozy, comic affair; the creepy mandrake plants in the Hogwarts greenhouse have a life of their own; Dobby the elf is a whole lot better a synthespian than George Lucas' Jar Jar Binks; Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) is emerging as the most interesting of Potter's Gryffindor chums, and Alan Rickman (as the nasty and no-good Professor Snape) gets to snicker and sneer with relish.
And it is with mixed emotions that one watches the final film performance from Richard Harris - as the Merlinesque Professor Dumbledore, his voice raspy, his ruddy mug hidden behind a big white beard. Harris died three weeks ago, and his disappearance presents a casting challenge for the team (including a new director: The Little Princess' Alfonso Cuarón) busy working on 2004's Potter installment, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Still, it's great to see Harris one last time - he brought a genial gravitas to the halls of Hogwarts.