Directed by Chris Columbus, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters.

It really doesn't matter what they did to it, 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is still going to be a runaway success. Director Chris Columbus has decided to go the way of all sequels, making 'The Chamber of Secrets' into a bigger, scarier, darker - and longer - film. The kids are going to love it but accompanying adults may not be as enamoured.

After a brief episode in the world of the Muggles with his horrible relatives, Harry (Radcliffe) and his friends Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) return to the magical halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although things aren't as new for Harry, it doesn't look as if second year is going to be any quieter than last year. He's been adopted by a house elf called Dobby, who keeps popping up with ominous warnings and someone has opened a hidden room in the school called the Chamber of Secrets, releasing a mythical monster who has a taste for "petrifying" students.

The Chamber was constructed by one of the school's founders, a renegade wizard called Salazar Slytherin, who had insisted that only pure-blood wizards and witches should be allowed in Hogwarts. When mysterious messages about the arrival of the heir of Slytherin are found on the walls of the school, Harry, Hermione and Ron decide to investigate. But Harry always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and it's not long until he's the one under suspicion.

Director Chris Columbus has tried to up the ante across the board for his second outing. It's certainly scarier and there's an unnecessarily gory ending to the climatic battle scene, which may be unsuitable for younger children. A Quidditch match - unconvincingly computer generated in the first film - is here a dizzyingly intense experience. Harry and Ron's near-misses in a flying Ford Anglia, while not so 'real', are also edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Despite these strides forward, Columbus missed the opportunity to up the pacing this time round. 'The Philosopher's Stone' came in at over two and a half hours. 'Chamber of Secrets', by following practically every subplot in the book, manages to whack another ten minutes onto an already too long running time. Two hours into the screening, there was audible restlessness amongst young audience members.

For more mature viewers, the adult members of the cast are still a delight. The school is dominated by Professor Dumbledore, played by the late Richard Harris who, despite the make up, looks and sounds remarkably ill. He is ably assisted by Maggie Smith's Professor McGonagall and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid the Giant. Although in print he may be one of the most aggravating characters in the Harry Potter series, Kenneth Branagh brings the vain Defence against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart to life as a superbly comic character, a preening author who misses no possible opportunity to promote his autobiography 'Magical Me'.

As with 'The Philosopher's Stone', the real weakness here lies in the central role. Daniel Radcliffe's acting, while improved from last year's plank impression, is still not strong enough to carry the weight of this film, never mind an entire franchise. It is to be devoutly hoped that the producers look elsewhere for 2004's 'Prisoner of Azkaban'. Rupert Grint has managed to lose the ease which he showed in the first film and instead spends his time looking bug-eyed with fear or over reacting to his surroundings. Of the children, Emma Watson is the one that shines, promising a career far beyond the confines of Hogwarts School.

First time round, Chris Columbus was able to dazzle us with his realisation of JK Rowling's imaginary world but this time he can't hide the emptiness of his vision behind sets and special effects. Sticking rigidly to source material does not a magical film make. 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is a pedestrian take on what could have been a great adventure.

Caroline Hennessy