Kenneth Branagh is the comic wild card in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Each time the moviemakers flip him into a scene as blowhard wizard Gilderoy Lockhart, he rouses mirth with everything from his dippity-do hairstyle to his gleefully smug tone of voice.
Lockhart turns his new position as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry into an opportunity to promote his already best-selling books, including his new autobiography, Magical Me. And when Lockhart realizes that his students will include the celebrated Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), the cauldron of his ego bubbleth over.
He's author J.K. Rowling's comic-nightmare image of a celebrity with feet of clay - no, he's more slick and malleable, even plasticene. And Branagh energizes this madcap creation with an ebullient unctuousness that doesn't cease to generate a smile, a titter or a belly laugh. Although Branagh too wrote a premature autobiography called Beginning, he always fought against becoming a mere matinee idol. So it's uproariously satisfying that as Lockhart he reveals boundless depths of inner glitz. Branagh imbues Lockhart with a narcissistic delirium: He knows that his fans love him partly for his vanity.
The actor is having the time of his life - and he's the life of the movie. His performance has precisely what the Harry Potter movie series so far lacks: style, interpretation and attack, the essential ingredients of inspired adaptations.
To be fair about the second Potter picture (again directed by Chris Columbus and written by Steve Kloves), let's accentuate the positive. The caricatures of Harry's non-magical relatives, the Dursleys - aunt (Fiona Shaw), uncle (Richard Griffiths) and cousin (Harry Melling) - are actually funny for a change, in their own rapacious, piggy ways. The tumbledown home of Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), becomes a veritable capital of hilarity, thanks partly to Julie Walters' ability to wield an iron fist in a kitchen mitt as the mother and wife of a rambunctious brood and spouse.
In short, the film exudes amiability, and the magic doesn't fade when the action shifts to Hogwarts School (as it did in the first movie). The late Richard Harris and Maggie Smith are more at ease in their roles as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and his deputy, Professor McGonagall; Alan Rickman continues to radiate twisted energy as potions-master Professor Snape; and Miriam Margolyes proves a suitably loamy comic addition as Professor Sprout, mistress of Herbology.
I like the way John Cleese's grouchy ghost, Nearly Headless Nick, casually drops in and out of the action. He doesn't do much except tip his head, but he does feel like part of a lived-in - and died-in - environment, along with the photos and paintings that frame mobile men and women, or the magical climate control that whips up a white Christmas indoors.
Still, before the movie's halfway mark, I began clicking the Indiglo button on my watch. The ratio of time elapsed to ground covered goes haywire. And that's a surprising development, since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has a more unified story than the first film.
At the start, a house elf named Dobby warns Harry that danger awaits him at Hogwarts School. (Dobby himself is semi-charming, semi-annoying: He shares the jittery, computer-animated obsequiousness of Jar Jar Binks.) Sure enough, the august academy does contain a peril more bone-chilling than Snapes' scowl or Lockhart's smile. A mysterious force has emerged from a long-rumored "Chamber of Secrets" to petrify the students, literally. It's targeting kids from non-magical families, including that scholarly knockout Hermione (the luminous Emma Watson).
With a menace so clear and a hook so compact, how could the filmmakers let their work stretch out to 2 hours and 41 minutes? Partly from their theory that to adapt Rowling's books you must approximate her sprawling, headlong rush of invention and incident. The result is a frayed yarn, not an urgent, coiling comedy-drama.
They do a competent job of eliminating repetitive effects. For example, Rowling turns the weeding-out of grotesque garden gnomes into a robust sport resembling a hammer toss. Columbus and Kloves pass up that treat but go full-tilt on the re-potting of Mandrakes, plants that look and sound like screeching infants. Re-potting them is akin to burying monstrous babies alive.
More important, Columbus and Kloves touch on every nuance in the lead characters' makeup, from Harry's embarrassment at celebrity (he's the anti-Lockhart) and Ron's inferiority complex to the crush Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) has on Harry.