Dir: Chris Columbus. US/UK. 2002. 161 mins

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind the second instalment of the gilt-edged boy wizard franchise. Scrupulously faithful to the J K Rowling book, director Chris Columbus does nothing that will disappoint fans or alarm exhibitors anticipating a pre-Christmas bonanza. There are plenty of new ingredients to keep the franchise fresh, from an obsequious elf to an enchanted flying car, and if anything the second film is more thrilling and involving than the first as the emotional stakes are raised by placing Harry and his schoolmates in mortal danger. Critics may reserve their loftiest superlatives for the Tolkein trilogy but neither the darker tone nor the excessive running-time should prevent Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets matching or even surpassing the box-office benchmarks of its predecessor.

Unburdened by the need for introductions or scene-setting, the second Potter film cuts straight to the story as Harry (Radcliffe) finds his suburban incarceration interrupted by Dobby, an elf who warns him not to return to Hogwarts for the start of term. Rescued by Ron (Grint) and his brothers, he ignores the predictions of danger and continues his education. Soon, bloody writing on the school walls reveals that a hidden Chamber of Secrets has been opened, pets and pupils are found petrified and Hogwarts is no longer thought to be safe.

Constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time, even Harry begins to falls under suspicion especially when it becomes apparent that he possesses the rare and deadly gift of being able to talk in snake language. When headmaster Albus Dumblebore (Harris) is suspended and the loyal Hagrid (Coltrane) is dispatched to the notorious Azbakan jail, Harry is left vulnerable to his enemies but if he is to survive, he must confront the evil that lurks in the Chamber of Secrets.

Although there are some sluggish passages towards the half way mark, the film does benefit from a rattling good mystery yarn as the gloomy Hogwarts castle becomes even more of a haunted house in which anything could be lurking around the next dark, shadowy corridor. The effects are noticeably more effective this time around as they conjure up a convincingly fearsome snake, a cave of angry arachnids and an exciting, high-speed Quidditch game. The tiniest of tots my find it all too much for their delicate sensibilities but children should relish all the attempts to scare them out of their wits.

The three main child actors, including Emma Watson as Hermione, have gained in confidence and grown nicely into their roles and all of the regular ensemble from the first film return, including a frail-sounding Richard Harris in a touching swansong and an underused Robbie Coltrane as gentle giant Hagrid. New recruit Kenneth Branagh adds considerably to the fun as conceited, matinee idol wizard Gilderoy Lockhart who is hired as the Defence Against The Black Arts teacher. A flaxen-maned Jason Isaacs is a suitably chilling and hissable Lucius Malfoy and Shirley Henderson makes a delightfully petulant schoolgirl ghost Moaning Myrtle as she haunts the ladies lavatory.

If comparisons are made with soulless Summer blockbusters like Scooby-Doo and Men In Black 11, then the Harry Potter franchise is all too clearly in a league of its own in creating exciting, fun-filled large-scale entertainments that cross all boundaries of geography and age. A greater sense of wonderment and a little more directorial flair would be welcome but those might well be issues that Alfonso Cuaron will address when he takes command for Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.

Prod Co: Warner Bros.
Prod: David Heyman
Exec prods: Michael Barnathan, David Barron, Chris Columbus, Paula DuPre Pesman, Mark Radcliffe.
Co-prod: Tanya Seghatchian
Scr: Steve Kloves from the novel by J.K. Rowling
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Prod des: Stuart Craig
Ed: Peter Honess
Music: John Williams
Main cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Shirley Henderson.