Familiarity -- the very opposite of surprise -- works unexpected wonders in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second installment in the movie adaptations of J.K. Rowling's kid-cosmos-changing books. The busy opulence of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry now feels homey. The contrasting personalities and acting styles of young Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as Harry and his wizard-in-training schoolmates Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger blend into a complementary group pluckiness. The fairy-dust music-by-the-handful of John Williams sounds like it's been in our ears forever.
This is a most Muggle-ish kind of alchemy, but everyday magic all the same: In just a year (of product saturation and more earthbound audience expectations), the ''Harry Potter'' movie factory has established itself as a blue-chip enterprise that knows how to manage talent and resources admirably in the service of Rowling and Hollywood both.
True, the ''HP'' corporation doesn't achieve the gravity-defying loft of, say, Peter Jackson's first installment of ''The Lord of the Rings.'' Director Chris Columbus' Mall-of-America-built, ''Home Alone'' style isn't engineered for leaps; it's made for marathons, sequels, ''Home Alone 2''s. Still, this time around, I'm more comfortable with the limitations of Columbus' own powers -- and maybe Columbus is too: ''Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'' is an improvement on ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' not only because the director and his team are more confident about what they can do, but also because they're less uptight and defensive about what they can't.
And among the things this ''HP'' does very well indeed is deepen the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences of all ages already familiar with the intricacies of the ''Potter'' landscape. (This is as it should be: Harry's story is supposed to get darker.) Besides, the gathering darkness is funny as often as it's scary, the returning actors now fully filling out their flowing robes and pointed hats.
As the second year at Hogwarts begins, Harry and his friends get off to a nerve-racking start. A noodgey house-elf called Dobby warns our young hero that disaster will follow if he comes back to school. Ron and Harry, who miss the Hogwarts Express, must hightail it to campus in a flying car, enduring a perilous thwacking when they crash-land into the Whomping Willow tree. Indeed, particularly bad juju does seem to haunt the school halls. And by the end of two hours and 41 minutes, the juju has been dramatized to within an inch of overload. (Reader patience isn't the same as viewer patience, and there are still too many adventures crammed, however efficiently, into Steve Kloves' script.)
But many of the intricate new difficulties bring with them new characters, marvelously played by fresh king-and-queen hams who conjure the old-fashioned art of well-placed acting. ''It was remarkable how he could show every one of those brilliant teeth even when he wasn't talking,'' Rowling writes of the flamboyantly vain, phony Gilderoy Lockhart, the school's new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and no one plays brilliant, hilarious narcissism better than Kenneth Branagh, in a role for which the preternaturally seasoned fellow has apparently waited all his life.
Then again, in a sneer-and-smarm showdown, Branagh has a worthy adversary in Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, toxic father of Harry's chief bully and Slytherin nemesis Draco (Tom Felton). Any time these two Master Thespians appear, working their facial muscles for fun and profit -- and, for that matter, with every juicy scene involving Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, or the late, lamented Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore -- ''The Chamber of Secrets'' reaches its full power. Shirley Henderson squeaks eloquently as Moaning Myrtle, who haunts one of the toilets in the girls' bathroom. And Radcliffe, too, is blossoming into his own supple adolescent powers as a charming and handsome young man who does Harry and his fans great justice.
''The Chamber of Secrets'' still doesn't quite trust itself as a freestanding cinematic creation. But maybe it's not meant to, at least not on Columbus' watch. And maybe what comes across this time is the director's peace with his own limitations. Okay, so the production team is still overinvested in fancy special effects (Dobby the elf looks like he's a mudblood himself, with a lot of Yoda in his lineage). And he's still partial to convoluted action sequences, the most tricky of which include a visit to the Forbidden Forest, where Harry and Ron meet the giant spider Aragog, and a Lord Voldemort-haunted climax of good and evil involving Harry, the mysterious Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson), and a slithery basilisk.
But if it doesn't fly, this ''Chamber'' at least hovers nicely a few feet off the ground for good stretches of time. Which still leaves a lot of airspace available for when ''A Little Princess'' director Alfonso Cuarón -- a real master of jewel-like enchantment -- takes over the magic in ''Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.''