As we drove away from the screening of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," my happy companion commented that the movie had a little bit of everything. It had, he said, "a bit of action, a bit of fear, a bit of bravery and a bit of embarrassment." To this astute observer's words (full disclosure: He's my 7-year-old nephew and a fount of information on all things Potter), I can only add that it's also got a bit of magic and more than a bit of charm. No sequelitis here, kids (and grown-ups) — this franchise is alive and well.
And, like the apple-red Hogwarts train, it's speeding full steam ahead toward adolescence, with rather more grace than the journey normally entails. The "embarrassment" alluded to by my nephew comes late in the film, when two near-teens suddenly feel the tiniest blush of squirrelly attraction.
It's a subtle moment, but signifies — along with the up-and-down wanderings of the young male cast's voices — that hormones may soon be raging in the halls of Hogwarts. Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith, with her lips ever-pursed) spends most of this film looking terribly worried; perhaps, in addition to fretting about the forces of evil, she's anticipating chaperoning the spring dance.
But changes are welcome in this magical world, as the fairest criticism that can be leveled against the second "Harry Potter" movie is that it's an awful lot like the first one.
Young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, looking a bit lankier) is rescued from his nasty aunt and uncle, only to find signs of dark forces at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with which he and pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must grapple. John Williams' whimsical theme music is back, as is virtually all of the original cast and settings. All this familiarity is comforting for the many who loved "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" — just seeing the firelit Gryffindor Common Room again is a cozy pleasure — but doesn't bode well for a planned seven-movie franchise.
Subtle signs of change, though, are on the horizon, and it's not just Hermione's once-wild hair (she appears to have discovered some sort of smoothing gel during the school break). Director Chris Columbus — who does good work here, but is showing a bit too much reliance on charming, wide-smile close-ups of his young stars — is stepping down after two movies. Alfonso Cuarón, who made the enchanting 1995 children's film "A Little Princess" (and the zesty, for-grown-ups-only comedy "Y tu mamá también" earlier this year), will direct "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which goes into production next year for a summer 2004 release.
But never mind the future — the film that arrives on screen this week (with refreshingly less hype than last year) has more than its share of enchantment. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, more comfortable this time around, interact with the ease of old friends. Robbie Coltrane's kind giant Hagrid and Alan Rickman's bone-white Professor Snape are a welcome sight, as is Smith's crotchety professor and Julie Walters' bubbly ginger-haired mama witch, Mrs. Weasley.
Kenneth Branagh, as the foppish new teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, gives perhaps his loosest, silliest performance ever: He's constantly adjusting himself for the best possible camera angle, grinning as if to expose as many pearly-white teeth as possible. Shirley Henderson ("Topsy-Turvy," "Bridget Jones's Diary"), her voice sounding like she's inhaled a very British type of helium, joins the cast as Moaning Myrtle, a pigtailed ghost who lurks in the girls' bathroom. Jason Isaacs is nicely slithery as Lucius Malfoy, father of Harry's blond nemesis Draco (Tom Felton, looking more and more like some kind of junior albino vampire).
And Richard Harris, who died last month of cancer at the age of 72, is the picture of kindness and wisdom as beloved headmaster Albus Dumbledore, in his final screen performance. In one poignant scene, he explains to Harry why his lovely phoenix bird is now ashes: "They burst into flame when it is time for them to die, and then they are reborn."
The cavernous halls of Hogwarts are as populated as ever (though I'd like to see John Cleese's Nearly Headless Nick get a little more screen time), and a few new settings are tantalizingly revealed. We get a quick peek at the Weasleys' house, looking like an upside-down Victorian pile, and at the school potting shed, where mandrake roots — squealing like evil babies — are repotted.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is definitely a darker movie than its predecessor — words are written on a wall in blood; creepy-crawly giant spiders menace our heroes; and there's more talk of murder than last time around. But there's still an appealing sweetness to it — at heart, it's the story of a boy who has found his home.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com.