J.K. Rowling's gift is finding something revelatory in the workaday: In her Harry Potter universe, wizards solve ordinary problems with extraordinary magic. Director Chris Columbus has the opposite gift: He never fails to make the revelatory feel workaday.
That said, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a better, looser, more vivacious movie than its predecessor. And that's not saying much. But ''Chamber'''s shortcomings aren't all Columbus' fault. Rowling's books are often likened to screen treatments, but a TV miniseries might be a better comparison, as each tome is episodic and chockablock with side stories. Columbus does little to smooth those transitions in adapting Rowling's dark tale of ethnic cleansing, which centers on a hidden menace hell-bent on eliminating Muggle-born wizards. Such a serious story line doesn't mesh well with consequence-free sadism masquerading as kid empowerment (Columbus' usual ''Home Alone'' MO). And the fact that Harry & Co. must once again solve all Hogwarts' problems unassisted makes the wise and mighty faculty look dangerously incompetent.