"Chamber of Secrets" made $262 million at the domestic box office (down from $318 million for the first movie) and an enormous $595 million overseas.
Last fall, I took my son and his two best friends to see the latest "Harry Potter" movie, just as I had the previous November when they were third graders. Two hours and forty-one minutes of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" later, I asked them how it compared to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which took in more receipts worldwide than anything besides "Titanic."
"It's perfectly excellent," announced William. All three voted it better than 2001's version for being more intense.
Just as Harry and his sidekicks Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger (along with the actors playing them) are a year older this time out, so is their typical fan. Author J.K. Rowling, director Chris Columbus, and screenwriter Steven Kloves adjusted by making "Chamber of Secrets" more frightening and thrilling.
Columbus fixes the two biggest mistakes in his initial movie. He had edited the original Quidditch flying broomstick match with the typical modern sports movie's incomprehensibly quick cuts. That's a particularly bad way to portray a fictitious game with baffling rules. This time, though, Columbus uses long tracking shots that help convey the strategy and exhilaration of Quidditch.
Further, John Williams' score is no longer sappy and overbearing.
The first movie charmed but sprawled as it introduced Rowling's imaginary world, which consists of satisfying variations on all the great themes of Britain's fantastically rich literature for children. In the manner of "Tom Brown's Schooldays," "Sorcerer's Stone" included a lot of Hogwarts' school rules, such as the elaborate system for earning House Points. This enthralled little kids, but glazed over a few parents' attention spans.
In contrast, the new movie, while remaining close to the book, is a freight train that roars all the way through to a strong, rather bloody climax. An earlier giant spider scene is so scary that 9-year-old Ellington had his jacket over his head for 10 minutes straight.
Parents should take this film's "PG" rating seriously. While the first movie would terrify only preschoolers, this one will panic anybody burdened with an Indian Jones-style phobia about snakes or spiders. Evolution programmed some of us to be afraid, very afraid, of the venomous crawly things that threatened our caveman ancestors. In contrast, few humans have obsessive fears about being done in by modern threats such as hair driers falling into the bathtub.
My son Peter thought "Chamber of Secrets" was better because it was "longer," and that "made it even more exciting because you didn't know if you could make it all the way through without having to go to the bathroom."
Well, the boys made it through, but barely. They reluctantly raced out during the credits even though it meant missing the little epilogue kicker at the very end that reveals the comic fate of the foppish blowhard Gilderoy Lockhart, as delightfully played by Kenneth Branagh ("Henry V") with an almost disturbing level of self-insight.
The movie features a long list of other well-cured British hams, although most of the roles are too benign to offer first-rate showcases. For example, the infinitely irkable John Cleese of Monty Python merely glides through as a cheerful, semi-decapitated ghost.
The great Maggie Smith ("The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie") and the should-have-been-great Richard Harris ("This Sporting Life") have bigger roles than in the first film, but are supposed to be so kindly that they don't register fully. (If you want to see Harris' most entertaining performance of his final year, check out the late rogue's turn in "Count of Monte Cristo," now out on video.)
Even Alan Rickman, who stole the original show as the foreboding Professor Snape, is largely disarmed.
Fortunately, young Tom Felton is maturing as Harry's nemesis Draco Malfoy, the Transylvanian-looking lad with the creepy blonde widow's peak. Even better is Jason Isaacs (the English villain in Celtic Mel Gibson's "The Patriot") as Draco's malevolently elitist father.
The sinister Lucius Malfoy wants to ethnically cleanse Hogwarts School of "mudbloods" -- young wizards and witches born to unmagical Muggles, such as Hermione.
Rowling's condemnation of Malfoy's obsession with heredity is more than a little hypocritical, since the reason Harry is her books' hero is the unearned gifts of advanced magic powers and Quidditch skills he received from his parents.
Further, Rowling isn't above some ethnic discrimination herself. The American child superstar Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense") wasn't even invited to audition, supposedly because Rowling insisted upon an all-British cast.
Rated PG for scariness and the H-word. There's nothing vulgar.