Genre:   Children's adventure/Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Rating:  PG (for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language)

Release Date:  November 15, 2002

Actors:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, Devon Murray, Julie Walters, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs, Miriam Margolyes, Christian Coulson

Director:  Chris Columbus

Special Notes:  The next series entry, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, begins production next spring and will be directed by Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess).  And who did Cuarón beat out for the job?  None other than Chamber of Secrets star Kenneth Branagh.  And then, how does a movie franchise replace an actor its producer calls ''irreplaceable?''  Richard Harris' death at 72 has posed a problem.  He had hoped to play the 2,000-year-old wizard again in the third movie as well as the four sequels beyond that.  Now, producers are considering Harris's body double for the role, Harry Robinson.  He is the same age as Harris (72) and can mimic Harris's voice as well.

Plot:  Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is fed-up with living with his muggle relatives and disturbed by a house-elf named Dobby who appears only to Harry and warns him of the danger that awaits him at school if he returns.  But when his best friend Ron (Grint) appears at his window in a flying cat to rescue Harry, the two happily speed back to another year at Hogwarts school.  Harry reunites with Hermione (Watson), Hagrid (Coltrane), headmaster Dumbledore (Harris), old professors (Rickman, Smith), a new "famous" one (Branagh) another professor who raises screaming plants (Margolyes), Harry's old enemy Draco (Felton), and his evil father Lucius Malfoy (Isaacs).  As he settles into his classes (chasing Pixies, planting screaming mandrakes and playing Quidditch) he begins to hear a haunting voice that leads him straight to victims who've been paralyzed.  After several students are attacked (including Hermione) the school's very existence becomes threatened, so Harry and Ron determine to save the school by discovering the truth.  On that road to discovery they are surrounded by giant tarantulas in a dark and scary forest, and they discover the legendary Chamber of Secrets where Harry comes face to face with the ghost of a student named Tom Riddle (Coulson) and fights one of the most terrifying giant snakes you've ever seen.

Good:  After Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone grossed almost $1 billion worldwide (not to mention the untold fortune from videos, toys, and other tie-ins), you could almost count on the fact that director Chris Columbus wasn't going to tinker much with his magical hit-making formula.  From director to production designer, everyone is back for this adaptation of the second book of J.K. Rowling's which is darker and more dramatic but still opulent, enchanting, and filled with imaginative special effects, likeable characters, and magical scenes that are entertaining.  This action-packed, special effects-filled movie has unique touches kids will get a kick out of, like a cloak that lets Harry disappear, a flying car, friendly talking ghosts, paintings that movie, an adventurous-fast-action, flying broom stick Quidditch matches, plants with roots that scream before they are planted, blue pixies that wreak havoc in class, a bird that dies, then is reborn with powers to heal, and much more.  I was spell-bound by the details put into each scene and entertained by the strong ensemble of actors who are all very comfortable with their characters.  I especially enjoyed John Williams's wonderful score which of course adds to the drama.  Except for the whopping 2 hours and 41 minutes that some kids may find too long--but others won't even realize flew by--this is an entertaining, well-made movie that is strictly for mature kids who can understand the difference between fantasy and reality and adults who should go with them and further explain that difference to their kids afterwards.

BEWARE:  SPOILERS LURK AHEAD

Bad:  This time (as with the book) along with enchanting and imaginative comes a progressively darker storyline that parents need to pay close attention to.  This is NOT a movie for younger children or "kiddie" friendly because of the intense scenes and scary elements.  In fact, I would suggest it for mature kids only at age 9 or up.  From the emphasis on the cruelty of Harry's Muggle family and how he feels more at home with "his kind" and the subtle but negative Muggle-ish comments, innuendoes and put-downs about kids who are "mud bloods" or part human, to Harry's "gift" of speaking "Parselmouth" or "snake talk" with a snake, to a diary possessed by a ghost that takes Harry back in time to view the legendary Chamber of Secrets (then later tries to kill him), to messages written in blood--this is a clearly a story for an older audience.  This time around the focus isn't as much on "how" to do magic as much as it is on practicing the magic already learned to get Harry and friends out of trouble or situations that require them to escape harm.  Then there are the scenes that are just plain scary like when Ron's flying car lands in a giant tree and the branches try and kill the boys, or when Harry and Ron are surrounded by giant tarantulas and barely escape the creepy army as it attacks their car, or when Harry finds the secret Chamber and is attacked by a giant snake that towers over him and hunts him down through a labyrinth of underground tunnels.  Heck, even the house-elf Dobby is creepy looking and sort of annoyingly scary as he pops in and out of Harry's life.

Bottom Line:  Parents, think back to when you were a kid.  Remember how much fun it was to see movies filled with fantasy and magic?  Did you survive?  Did it change your faith or lifestyle after you saw that movie?  I guess that's the question you'll have to ask yourself before you take your kids to see this movie.  I realize movies are different these days and have the power to affect and influence your children's lives, so that's why it is important that you be the gatekeeper for your children.  There has been a long-standing argument about Rowling's books and whether parents should let their kids read her books or see the movies.  One argument for the books is that Harry is simply the hero representing good triumphing over evil to save the day, and that's obviously what makes any story work.  But the "good vs. evil" battle is all in the context of a school for witchcraft specifically designed to train and teach children (who are witches or at least part witch) to become skilled and trained in their religion, much as a convent, monastery, temple or theological seminary would do.  So in truth, the premise is based on the battle between "good witchcraft vs. bad witchcraft" which clearly embraces and condones that religion and lifestyle and brings to the forefront the question--"Is there such a thing as "good" witchcraft?"  In truth, when all is said and done, most older children or young teens who see this movie will probably walk out and simply enjoy it for the entertaining value it presents.  Others, who may be searching for something that would give them power or excitement in life, might possibly be tempted to further explore witchcraft because of seeing this film.  But that's where your job as a parent comes in.  You are the only one who knows your child.  You are the only one who can determine how and even if a movie could possibly influence your child's life.  It is up to you to be the gatekeeper and monitor what your children can or cannot, comprehend and/or process--and I think that's the best place to leave the debate.