Another year, another epic battle with evil

Reading more than one volume in J.K. Rowling's popular Harry Potter series is in some respects like revisiting an old friend. In others, it's like spending another vacation in a town less endlessly interesting than you'd hoped at first.

Ditto for viewing "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the second movie in the Potter film franchise.

It's fun to see the regular gang on hand for new adventures, joined by fresh characters who add touches of novelty and spice.

But the secrets in this chamber aren't all that amazing once you get a glimpse of them, and if you're older than the teens Rowling wrote for, you might start muttering magic spells to make the show seem shorter than the whopping 160 minutes it takes to unfold.

Hewing as close to its source novel as last year's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the new picture starts with Harry's daring escape from his foster family so he can start his second year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where specially endowed youngsters refine the supernatural skills they were born with.

No sooner does he arrive than a frightening crisis looms: Someone is walloping students with a spell that turns them into stone, and the menace may hail from a hidden chamber that poured forth evil the last time it was opened a half-century ago.

Things get worse when Harry's best friends are threatened by the peril, and worse yet when he comes under suspicion of being the culprit.

Like most self-respecting sequels, "Chamber of Secrets" introduces a few new faces.

The best are Gilderoy Lockhart, an egotistical enchanter with a taste for shameless self-promotion, and Moaning Myrtle, a whiney ghost who haunts a Hogwarts restroom. The worst new character is Dobby, a masochistic elf who comes off as a Yoda-like puppet without a shred of sense or cuteness.

Rowling's novel is a tad more sophisticated than its predecessor in the series, dipping an exploratory toe into the waters of adolescent romance.

It also uses some plot elements - including Dobby's status as a "house elf" and the prejudice some magic folks feel toward ordinary humans - to speak out against bigotry and class snobbery.

Chris Columbus's movie doesn't so much ignore these aspects as drown them in the sheer exhibitionism of its settings, costumes, and visual effects.

These are impressive in an ostentatious way. But they convey a spirit quite different from that of Rowling's easygoing prose, lumbering across the screen with a ponderousness worthy of Aragog, the giant spider who threatens Harry with extinction at one of the story's climactic moments.

"Chamber of Secrets" will find millions of eager fans. But if the essence of magic is its make-believe promise of life that soars above the material realm, this is the opposite of a truly magical movie.

Rated PG; 'Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets' contains violence and mild vulgarity.

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