First of all, a quick rant. Children aren't stupid. They may be naive, they may fall over a lot, but they're not thick. And when it comes to Harry Potter, most of 'em would ace the Mastermind Specialist Subject round if they could just sit still in that big, leather chair. So why in Voldemort's name do the makers of the Potter movies feel duty bound to have their cast spend the first half-hour of Chamber Of Secrets announcing every character's entrance?
"PROFESSOR McGONAGALL!" exclaims Ron when Professor McGonagall walks in. "Look! It's NEARLY HEADLESS NICK!" someone chimes as, you guessed it, Nearly Headless Nick drifts past. And why does Harry have to slowly repeat every major plot revelation after it's been explained to him? Children enjoy this stuff! They're paying attention! Stop patronising them!
Okay, rant over. Now we're going to tell you what you were hoping to hear: yes, Chamber is a significantly better movie than Philosopher's Stone. Mainly because it has a genuinely involving plot. Why is Dobby the CG House Elf (voiced by Toby Jones) trying to prevent Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) from getting to Hogwarts? Why does Harry keep hearing hissing voices in his head? And what's literally petrifying some of the students?
Inevitably, it's up to Master Potter and chums to save the day, although in a more grown-up way than last time. Blood, death and giant spiders all feature heavily, while there's a strong sense that the stakes have been raised as we glimpse JK Rowling's broader (grown-up) magic world, where the `dark forces' are mustering their power.
The three leads (Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) have settled well into their roles, and while much of the child acting is still Grange Hill-standard, this is compensated for by the new adult additions. The Fast Show's Mark Williams is hilarious as the befuddled Arthur Weasley, Jason Isaacs provides a spot-on, boo-hiss baddie as Aryan necromancer Lucius Malfoy, and Kenneth Branagh grabs the majority of the laughs as the preening, prattish Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher.
The effects, too, are vastly improved. Thanks to George Lucas' ILM nabbing the contract, the Quidditch matches now look like they're played by real children rather than CG dummies, and the entertainingly masochistic Dobby strikes the right balance between the convincing and the cartoonish. The Harryhausen-style climax, meanwhile, offers some edge-of-the-seat thrills as Radcliffe pulls on his action-hero trousers and tackles Hogwarts' mysterious stalker.
It all bodes well for Episode Three - assuming they can find a suitable replacement for Richard Harris as Dumbledore, of course. And Chris Columbus should be congratulated for finally dimming the lights of Hogwarts to the right level and setting a suitably dusky stage for Prisoner Of Azkaban helmer, Alfonso Cuarón. That's ALFONSO CUARON for any under-12s reading.
Better story, better acting, better characters and better effects. All they need is to sort out the dialogue next time, and everyone's a winner.