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The best thing to happen to the Harry Potter movie franchise was for journeyman director Chris Columbus to step down.
After turning out adequate adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Columbus was replaced by Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. With the third entry, the Harry Potter series started to take on a legitimate cinematic life of its own. No longer was it content to regurgitate to content of the source novels. Now, with Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) at the helm, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire proves to be the darkest and most ambitious Harry Potter outing to-date.
To trim the book’s massive content down to a reasonable size (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie is about 2 1/2 hours long, sans credits), screenwriter Steve Kloves (who has adapted all four novels) had to do a lot of compression. The resulting production is faithful to its source novel in broad strokes, but varies greatly when it comes to the details.
The “regulars” are all back – a year older and a little wiser. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is having strange dreams and he worries that his arch-enemy, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), may be planning a corporeal return. His friend Hermione (Emma Watson) is turning into a beautiful young woman and attracting a fair amount of male attention – a fact that has not escaped the green-eyed notice of Harry’s other buddy, Ron (Rupert Grint).
The trio’s fourth at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, there is to be a “Tri Wizard Tournament,” in which champion wizards, one representing each of three different schools, compete against each other for victory. The champions are Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy), and Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski). Unexpectedly, a “wild card” is added: Harry Potter. The tournament challenges prove to be as potentially deadly as they are difficult, and Harry wonders if there are forces aligned against him in a conspiracy.
The sides seem to be precisely defined: those who stand alongside Harry – Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, Professor Moody (Brendan Gleeson) – and those who stand against him – Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Draco and Lucius Malfoy (Tom Felton and Jason Issacs), Wormtail (Timothy Spall), and Barry Crouch Jr. (David Tennant). Yet all may not be as it initially seems.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire contains good qualities and not-so-good ones, although the former greatly outnumber the latter. This is the best one out of four of Harry Potter flicks, but it is not without flaws. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film is more action-oriented than its previous movies, with several exciting scenes (most remarkably a battle with a dragon and an underwater skirmish with angry mermaids), but I will admit to being let-down by the way in which the movie culminates. As high points go, this one is anticlimactic. (This is a case of something that works much better on the written page than on the screen.)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a grim, stylish motion movie. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is not as stylish, but is darker. Unlike the previous entries, this film focuses mostly on the students, allowing many of the adults a bit more than walk-on cameos. (Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape, for example, has only a handful of lines and is largely MIA.) The PG-13 rating is warranted. This is the movie in which the series transitions from something for kids to something for teenagers and young adults.
In developing the storyline, Kloves walked a tightrope. Certain clear irrelevancies were retained so as to keep readers (who act as the majority of the movie-going audience) happy. Additional cuts might have made for a tighter, better-paced film, but a compromise had to be made. The resulting film drags at times, yet it’s not so protracted that those who don’t read the novels will become impatient. Some familiarity with the realm of Harry Potter is a must, either through the novels or movies. As befits the fourth chapter of a longer saga, this is not a stand-alone episode.
With the exceptions of a Quiddich stadium and a dragon, the film is lean on splashy special effects. That’s not to say CGI is used sparingly, but the movie’s appearance is less ostentatious than that of its previous entries. It’s more intimate and real, and that enhances the immediacy of the menace. The dark cloud hanging over Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has grimed and lowered for this entry. Without any doubt, the storm will definitely break in about two years, when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix enters multiplexes.
For actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, this is an awkward time. Like their characters, they are struggling through the transition from childhood to young adulthood. None of these three is seasoned, and there are times when their performances betray their lack of experience. Nevertheless, putting acting limitations apart, Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint have turned into Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and it would be such a shame to replace them under any reason, even if the replacements were more brilliant and skilled. If they are willing, let them stay until 2010 or 2011, when the final Harry Potter movie will reach the screen.
Of the returning adults, only Michael Gambon has too many lines to count. The others show up in a few scenes but are used primarily as background dressing. Brendan Gleeson plays Professor Alastor Moody, a new teacher. He has plenty of screen time, which allows us opportunities to stare at his free-floating left eyeball.
Another newcomer is David Tennant (who recently landed the lead role in the BBC-TV revived series Doctor Who), who gets to imitate a rabid dog in human form. Finally, there’s Ralph Fiennes, whose Voldemort is surprisingly low key. I was disappointed by the way in which Fiennes chose to portray the evil wizard. Voldemort doesn’t seem all that ominous. In fact, he seems a little boring. This may be the case of the henchmen being more sinister than the master.
Four down, three to go. With each new Harry Potter movie, the stakes are elevated. Director Mike Newell has given the franchise a fresh new look without messing the ground work established by his predecessors. In the world of fantasy adventure, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an impressive opponent.
Although the series as a whole falls short of what Peter Jackson achieved with The Lord of the Rings, it creeps closer with each new entry (of the four Harry Potter features, there hasn’t yet been a weakling). And it won’t easy to assess the saga as whole until all seven entries have all come out. Until then, let me admit that Harry Potter has turned into a rare cinematic constant – something to be hyped for every year or two.