Has it been a year already? Leading the pack of big-budget fantasy/adventure serials now in vogue with moviegoers, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" opened this week, exactly a year and a day after its predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

The second installment in the phenomenally successful book-to-film series follows the young British wizard Harry Potter as he returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for another year of study - but ominous warnings, foul deeds and a deadly monster on the loose threaten to close the school and send Harry back to live with his cruel and neglectful non-wizarding relatives.

Director Chris Columbus is back at the helm, and he again delivers a picture amazingly true to the imagery in the books by J.K. Rowling. Screenwriter Steven Kloves returns as well, this time with a script more cohesive and contiguous than the first "Harry Potter." Of course, the first chapter in the series had to introduce audiences to the entire wizarding universe within its 152-minute running time. (And how long did it take you to finish the book?)

The story involves several students becoming "petrified" by an unknown monster, and as Harry and and his friend Ron attempt to uncover the mystery and stop the attacks they encounter several more sinister and scary creatures. Very young viewers will need a lap to crawl onto during some frightening action sequences with truly thunderous sound effects.

Kloves' screenplay seems more sure of itself this time, taking a few liberties with a little extra dialog here and there when scenes from the book were cut to preserve the flow of the film. He doesn't need to spend as much time introducing and defining the characters, either, so the plot gets the audience's full attention from the beginning.

All the former cast members have returned to reprise their original characters, although Harry and Ron have apparently hit puberty - they don't look much different, but their voices certainly resonate in a lower register.

Joining the ranks of colorful Hogwarts' characters is respected Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh as the narcissistic Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, who'd rather sign autographs than teach classes. While he wears the flowing golden hair well, Branagh doesn't attain the self-important swagger book fans will look for in Lockhart, and his smile isn't big enough or cheesy enough to convey how shallow the character really is.

The other newcomer to the story is Dobby, a fully computer-animated house elf who tries to keep Harry from returning to Hogwarts. The level of realism in Dobby's skin, clothing and movements is uncanny. For all the sophistication of his facial detail and lip movements when speaking, though, his big watery eyes are strangely unexpressive.

Anyone who's been to the movies in the last 25 years will recognize John Williams' magnificent orchestral scores. He created a slightly spooky but playful theme for the Harry Potter movies, but in "Chamber of Secrets," some key moments in the soundtrack almost feel rehashed from other Williams classics.

The Harry Potter movies aren't perfect, but they're definitely enjoyable. Sets, costumes and visual effects are all stunning, and the stories themselves are clearly winners (100 million readers can't be wrong!). "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" bears its share of flaws, but it's an improvement upon its precursor's choppy presentation. Now to clear my calendar for the next one ... Three stars out of four

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