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First sequels are the true test of an enduring movie franchise, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets passes with flying colors. Harry's second year at Hogwarts involves a darker, more malevolent tale (parents with younger children beware), beginning with the petrified bodies of several Hogwarts students and magical clues leading Harry, Ron, and Hermione to a 50-year-old mystery in the monster-laden Chamber of Secrets. House elves, squealing mandrakes, giant spiders, and venomous serpents populate this loyal adaptation (by director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves), and Kenneth Branagh delightfully tops the supreme supporting cast as the vainglorious charlatan Gilderoy Lockhart. At 161 minutes, the film suffers from lack of depth and uneven pacing, and John Williams's score mostly reprises established themes. The young, fast-growing cast offers ample compensation, however, as does the late Richard Harris in his final screen appearance as Professor Albus Dumbledore. Brimming with cleverness, wonderment, and big-budget splendor, Chamber honors the legacy of J.K. Rowling's novels.
Some movie-loving wizards must have cast a magic spell on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, because it's another grand slam for the Harry Potter franchise. Demonstrating remarkable versatility after the arthouse success of Y Tu Mamá También, director Alfonso Cuarón proves a perfect choice to guide Harry, Hermione, and Ron into treacherous puberty as the now 13-year-old students at Hogwarts face a new and daunting challenge: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison, and for reasons yet unknown (unless, of course, you've read J.K. Rowling's book, considered by many to be the best in the series), he's after Harry in a bid for revenge. This dark and dangerous mystery drives the action while Harry and his third-year classmates discover the flying hippogriff Buckbeak (a marvelous CGI creature), the benevolent but enigmatic Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), horrifying black-robed Dementors, sneaky Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), and the wonderful advantage of having a Time-Turner just when you need one. The familiar Hogwarts staff returns in fine form (including the delightful Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and Emma Thompson as the goggle-eyed Sybil Trelawney), and even Julie Christie joins this prestigious production for a brief but welcome cameo. Technically dazzling, fast-paced, and chock-full of Rowling's boundless imagination, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a Potter-movie classic. (Ages 8 and older)