Well into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Albus Dumbledore intones as only he can: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead.” What does he think lay behind?
In this journey Harry will be dealing with giant lizards, facing the attack of the Death Eaters, and in probably the most difficult task of all for a 14-year-old, ask a girl to be his date at the Yule Ball.
That Harry survives these challenges goes without saying, as in the world of print his next journeys have already been shown, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire brings up trials that stretch his powers to the breaking point.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) was just turning 13 in the previous movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and the Potter series turns PG-13 with this installment. There is still to the very least a mail-owl, and what seems like a mail-raven (it may represent FedEx), but many of the twee touches of the earlier movies have gone missing to provide space for a brawnier, scarier storyline. Is it fair to ask if the saga will continue to grow up with Harry, reaching the R rating as the boy turns 17?
Certainly Lord Voldemort seems capable of limitless villainy. Although we glimpsed his face in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone we see him in full on screen for the first time in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and he does not disappoint: Hairless, with the complexion of a slug, his nostrils snaky slits in his face, he’s played by Ralph Fiennes as a vile creature who has at last been rejoined by his Death Eaters, who were disabled by Harry’s magic earlier in the series. Hogwarts School and certainly the whole structure of Harry’s world is under threat by Voldemort’s return to something coming close to his potential powers, and the movie becomes a struggle between the civilized traditions of the institution and the dark void of Voldemortism.
The movie is more violent, less cutesy than the rest, but the action is not the nonsense destruction of a video game; it has intention, shape and style, as in the Triwizard Tournament, which begins the movie. Three finalists are chosen by the Goblet of Fire, and then the Goblet spits out an unprecedented fourth name: Harry Potter . This is against the rules, because you have to be 17 to be able to compete in Triwizardry, and the boy is only 14, but Dumbledore can’t do anything: What the Goblet wants, the Goblet gets. The question is, who entered Harry’s name, since Harry says he didn’t?
The Triwizard Tournament kicks off near the beginning of the movie, but after the Quidditch World Cup, which takes place within a stadium so big it makes the Senate Chamber in “Star Wars” look like a dinner theater. The cup finals are interrupted by ominous portents; the Death Eaters attack, serving notice that Voldemort is back and means business. But the early skirmishes are repelled, and the kids go back to Hogwarts, joined by exchange students from two foreign magic academies: From France come the Beauxbaton girls, who march on parade like Bemelmans’ maids all in a row, and from Durmstrang school in central Europe come clean-cut Aryan lads who look like extras from “Triumph of the Will.”
Aside from Harry, Cedric Diggory is the Triwizard contestant from Hogwarts, and the other finalists consist of Viktor Krum, a Quidditch master from Durmstrang who seems ready to go pro, and the lithe Fleur Delacour, a Beauxbaton siren. Together they face three challenges: They must conquer fire-breathing dragons, rescue captives in a dark lagoon and enter a maze, which, seen from the air, seems limitless. The maze poses a threat for Harry that I am not entirely sure is anticipated by the Triwizard rules; within it waits dark lord Voldemort himself, who has been lurking offstage and now shows up in malevolent fury.
Against these trials, which are enough to put you off your homework, Harry also must negotiate his fourth year at Hogwarts. As usual, there is a weird new instructor on the board. Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson) is the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and seems made of spare parts; he has an artificial limb, and a glass eye that incorporates a zoom lens and can swivel independently of his real eye.
There is also, finally, full-blown adolescence to contend with. I’d always thought Harry would end up in love with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), even though their inseparable friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) clearly has the same ambition. However, for the Yule Ball, Harry has to find the courage to ask Cho Chang (Katie Leung), who actually has a crush on him. Ron asks Hermione, but she already has a date, with the student most calculated to inspire Ron’s jealousy. These sequences look almost in the spirit of John Hughes’ high school films.
Most of the Potter series regulars are back, if only for brief scenes, and it is good to see the gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) find love at last, with Madame Maxime (Frances de la Tour), headmistress of Beauxbaton. Hagrid, you will remember her, is a hairy half-giant. Frances is even bigger, but she’s a thankfully less hairy giantess. One new character is the snoopy Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), gossip columnist of the Daily Prophet, a paper that has pictures that talk, like the portraits in earlier films.
With this fourth entry, the Harry Potter series shows off more than ever the resiliency of J.K. Rowling’s original invention. Her novels have created a world that can expand indefinitely and produce new characters without limit. That there are schools like Hogwarts in other nations comes as news and provides many possibilities; the sole barrier to the saga lasting forever is Harry’s inexorably growing age. The thought of him returning to Hogwarts for old boys’ day is too depressing to contemplate.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was directed by Mike Newell, the first British director in the series (he turned down the first Potter movie). Newell’s credits range from the romantic “Four Weddings and a Funeral” to the devastating “Donnie Brasco” to the gentle “Enchanted April.”
Such varied notes serve him well in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which explores a wider emotional depth. He balances delicately between whimsy and the ominous, on the uncertain middle ground where Harry lives, poised between fun at school, teenage romance and the dark abyss.