Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone set the bar high for adaptations of J.K. Rowling's magical novelsthis second outing hits it neatly, with terrific treatments of the increasingly fantasticand darkelements of the series. The story opens with Harry miserable as usual chez Dursley, convinced his friends have forgotten him over the summer. Enter Fantastic Effect #1: Dobby, a bedraggled house elf who warns Harry of imminent danger at Hogwarts and begs him not to go back to school. Undeterred, Harry is finally rescued by Ron and his brothers with the aid of Fantastic Effect #2: a flying Ford Anglia. The brief scenes at the Weasley house are marvelously imaginedone wishes they didn't have to go shopping so soon, but Diagon Alley is always good for a few thrills, too. The weirdness continues apace as Ron and Harry are mysteriously prevented from boarding the Hogwarts Express and forced to hijack the flying car to get to school on time. Despite some added inches and deeper voices, the boys aren't old enough to drivelet alone flyyet and upon arrival, they crash into Fantastic Effect #3: The Whomping Willow.
Reunited with Hermione and joined by the youngest Weasley, sister Ginny, Ron and Harry dive into a new school year, which necessitates the introduction of a new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, wizard-celebrity Gilderoy Lockhart, played with pitch-perfect weaselry by Kenneth Branagh, who almost qualifies as Fantastic Effect #4. (Another wicked cameo goes to Jason Isaacs, as Lucius Malfoy, the flaxen-haired father of Harry's chief rival, Draco.) Things go downhill immediately as various denizens of Hogwarts turn up petrified all over the castle. A decades-old mystery involving an old diary and an ominous Chamber of Secrets unfolds, facilitating some truly creepy scenes starring a few more Fantastic Effects of the spider and serpent varietyyounger and more sensitive viewers, be wary.
As with the preceding film, the plot is necessarily compacted (and still clocks in at almost three hours), but the novel's key scenes, including an even more thrilling Quidditch match and the requisite showdown with You-Know-Who are given ample screen time. The untimely death of Sir Richard Harris, who played headmaster Dumbledore with a spot-on twinkling gravitas, will make for an added challenge as the third installment goes into productionsuch excellent casting doesn't happen by accident. Bring on The Prisoner of Azkaban!