The Harry Potter movie franchise is shaping up to be a mostly fun and grand experience. Regrettably, the keyword is “mostly.” After two installments, The Boy Who Lived hasn’t quite yet lived up to expectations. Each movie has been packed with dazzling scenes and set pieces that could drop even the steeliest jaw. But they’ve also been filled with, well, filler. 

Yes, the novels are packed with labyrinthine plots requiring a good heap of exposition. But most of J.K. Rowling’s red herrings and revelations play better on the printed page than on the big screen. For every fascinating Quidditch game or climactic wizard duel, there are a couple talky scenes that seem to go on forever. Were these scenes endowed with more of the novels’ dry wit or character development, it might be more forgivable.

To its credit, though, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is an improvement on its cinematic predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It adheres to the plot of the book, but not as rigidly as that film did. Also, it seems that director Chris Columbus (who is perhaps more confident in putting his own stamp on the story now) is making a fresher movie with keen and subtle touches, not simply a “greatest hits” collection of moments from the novel.

Its look also has improved fantastically. The visual effects are sharper and its production design more lavish (the setting for the film’s climax is reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). And the group of actors, basically a British master class, gets one more instructor with the always-good Kenneth Branagh as the egotistical professor Gilderoy Lockhart.

This time around, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is warned by a strange elf named Dobby that disaster will strike if he returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry ignores the warnings, but finds himself at the center of controversy surrounding the school’s mysterious Chamber of Secrets.

Closed long ago, the chamber has been mysteriously opened, and a monster has been attacking the academy’s students. Only the heir to the Slytherin house throne can control the monster, and evidence mounts that said heir might just be Mr. Harry Potter. A mysterious diary, Hogwarts’ groundskeeper Hagrid and Harry’s rival Draco Malfoy all hold clues for Harry to unravel the monster’s mystery before it kills his friends and causes the school to close.

Much like the first film, The Chamber of Secrets impresses with its portrayal of Quidditch, the sport of choice at Hogwarts. It’s an awe-inspiring scene, featuring a Harry-Draco duel, a chase through the Quidditch stadium rafters, a “bludger” that has been tampered with and the ever-elusive Golden Snitch. It’s more of a light-hearted, action-movie moment but it works well.

Columbus ensures, though, that The Chamber of Secrets is not without a dark streak, equally divided for scares (Harry and friend Ron Weasley fending off an intense attack from large spiders) and humor (Ron vomiting slugs into a bucket during one of the film’s more poignant scenes). This move is refreshing and fitting, given the novels’ increasingly strange, macabre narratives.

And across the board, the acting is strong. With his tender but authoritative voice, the late Richard Harris reminds us all why future sequels will miss his presence as Professor Dumbledore. Jason Isaacs, as Draco’s father Lucius, drips an evil, sarcastic tone over every line. And as Ron, Rupert Grint again steals the show among the child actors. His voice now has a Peter Brady-esque crack, but there’s no way to not laugh at the way he crinkles up his face in frightening situations.

Unfortunately, there’s no way not to glance at your watch, either, during this nearly three-hour film. Hopefully, Rowling’s longer books won’t lead into longer movies; can you imagine a four-hour Harry Potter film?

As it stands, the franchise is good with the potential to only get better. It’s showing no fear at exploring the novels’ darker moments, but needs to judiciously pare down the time it takes for the lights to come up.