Let us also note that the project, though successful, bears some minor handicaps. At 161 protracted minutes, it's a bit unwieldy for a children's film, and with its peculiar dearth of wit -- the most amusing line is mewled by a ghost (awesome Shirley Henderson) offering Harry the use of her toilet -- it probably won't keep discerning adults hooked throughout. Once again, people's director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and klunky screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) cleave very tightly to Rowling's narrative, cutting loose only to compress her character-rich exposition or gussy up her trim little action scenes. But that's not the glitch. The problematic issue -- magnified by unshakable déjà vu -- is that in this now-familiar setting, the author's wonder boys and girls engage us largely in spite of their cinematic handlers' perfunctory treatment, not because of it.
That said, from the soaring opening notes of John Williams's truly magnificent score (adapted here by William Ross, and more deft and spellbinding than Howard Shore's award-winning Lord of the Rings music), the magic is back. We descend upon a ghastly prefab subdivision (á la Time Bandits) to find Dickensian orphan and fledgling wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, into it) held hostage by his grotesque, Roald Dahl-esque relatives (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling). Like many a second-year student, all he wants to do is return to his true home, in this case the Chocolate Factory that is Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Enter Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones, CG-animated as this film's Jar Jar Binks or Gollum), a grody little house elf who appears very inconveniently in Harry's Spartan bedroom to warn him that he mustn't return to Hogwarts, or he'll be doomed (as if). Imagine a Martin Short clone, incessantly referring to himself in the third person, informing you that he's purloined all the letters sent to you by your friends so as to ensure your loneliness and detachment from your alma mater. You'd beat the crap out of him, right? Well, Harry's not the belligerent sort, and besides, Dobby illustrates a perverse predilection for self-abuse, so the message is the point: Grave -- if logistically confounding -- danger is afoot.
After narrowly escaping with earnest friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in Ron's dad's flying turquoise Ford Anglia, Harry's adventure begins. As with any series, neophytes may find themselves grasping desperately for handles as characters and concepts whiz past. But brief stops at the funky, magical Weasley abode, the Burrow (well inhabited by Billy Elliot's Julie Walters, 101 Dalmations' Mark Williams and -- in a limited but pivotal role -- young Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley), plus the creepy, gothed-out Knockturn Alley, keep both Harry and us on our toes. Immediately thereafter, at the magical Diagon Alley market, many key players light up the screen, including Hogwarts' coarse, lovable groundskeeper, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane, fab); Harry's decreasingly presumptuous cohort, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson); and the wildly narcissistic author and professor, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, who'd gleefully upstage God). Nasty folk also ring in the new school year, including little Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his malevolent dad, Lucius (Jason Isaacs), who may have summoned the unspeakable evil of Dobby's warning.
Once at Hogwarts, that grand edifice of dreams and nightmares (way to go, production designer Stuart Craig!), the plot becomes both more convoluted and more episodic. Said evil stalks the halls and communicates in snake language with Harry -- seems the boy's, you know, a parselmouth -- but whimsical lessons continue under the tutelage of professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), as well as headmaster Albus Dumbledore (good night, Richard Harris, genius actor). The pacing is clubfooted, but the visuals -- from zooming aerial Quidditch to loads of weird bogeys and transformations -- are utterly sensational.
The legacy of Harry Potter in popular culture remains to be seen -- those who'd burn the books as demonic are encouraged to get library cards, pronto -- but at present, despite its sophomoric awkwardness, the film of Chamber of Secrets is a welcome delivery of childlike wonder for a planet of ever-increasing ugliness. We've accidentally allowed a retarded monkey to rule America, but otherwise it's not such a whimsical place. Perhaps works like this can help set that to rights.