LOS ANGELES – Harry Potter crowds might have been bigger last year, but many say the movie is better this year.
Brooke Fowler and her husband left their home in Palm Springs, Calif., at 4:30 a.m. to bring her three sons, aged 8, 6 and 3, to Hollywood's historic Grauman's Chinese Theatre for an 8 a.m. screening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
"My husband's a teacher and we all played hooky today," she said.
Her boys all agreed that they loved the movie. "It had better effects and more scary parts," said 8-year-old Avery, who wore a homemade wizard's robe stitched with the Hogwarts logo.
Adapted from the second of J.K. Rowling's best-selling books, Chamber of Secrets follows Harry through year two at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he has a rematch with the evil conjurer who killed his parents.
At the Chinese Theatre, workers hung giant banners featuring the Hogwarts crest and logo: "Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus," which is Latin for "Never tickle a sleeping dragon."
As the movie opened around the country, the sequel was to be shown on even more screens in more theaters than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a year ago.
Valerie Kadium, a 57-year-old library worker from Los Angeles, took the day off work to take her place in line outside the theatre for a midmorning showing.
"I was a little disappointed with the last movie because they tried to cram so much in. They didn't let you get to know the characters and Harry didn't quite have the verve he had in the book," she said. "I'm definitely hoping for something different."
Distributor Warner Bros. conceded Chamber of Secrets may have a hard time equaling the $90.3 million opening weekend of Sorcerer's Stone.
"There was such an anticipation for the opening of the first one that it would really be extremely difficult and unrealistic that we could open to a number quite that large," said Dan Fellman, Warner's head of domestic distribution.
Sorcerer's Stone held the record for best opening-weekend gross until Spider-Man came in last spring with a $114.8 million debut.
Chamber of Secrets opened in a record 3,682 theaters, 10 more than Sorcerer's Stone, and on a record 8,500 screens, up about 400 over the first film.
Daniel Alzuri, who went with his friends to the first showing Friday of Chamber of Secrets, said he didn't want to risk waiting until later in the day — and have others spoil the fun by telling him all about the film.
"We weren't going to wait," Alzuri, 26, said. "We wanted to be the first ones to ruin it for everybody else."
While it may not break cash records, early reviews generally are calling Chamber of Secrets a better movie than Sorcerer's Stone. That's a sign the new film may have more staying power and eventually exceed the $317.6 million total taken in by Sorcerer's Stone. Warner Bros. has tried hard to ensure that Harry Potter works the same magic again. Child stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint returned for part two, along with key adult cast members and director Chris Columbus.
The filmmakers again followed the text of Rowling's novel as inclusively as possible, producing a two-hour, 41-minute movie.
Still, Robin Kranzler, a 21-year-old student at California State University, Northridge, who skipped class to see the movie, said she was disappointed that it excluded scenes from the book.
"There was a lot of good stuff, but I missed the part where Harry de-gnomed the garden .... and there could have been more Quidditch," she said, referring to the story's magical, broom-riding sport.
Special effects are improved, and Columbus injects more action and a darker tone into Chamber of Secrets.
"I knew we wanted to get it darker and edgier and more intense, more exciting. The first one had 45 minutes of introduction. This film, we got into the story" right away, Columbus said.
The sequel also opened in eight other countries Friday. It's on about 1,270 screens in Great Britain, up about 70 over Sorcerer's Stone, and on nearly 1,000 in France, up from 900 for the first film, said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner's head of international distribution.