The Harry Potter films have been, on the whole, getting progressively better with each installment. The first step was ditching the more commercially-minded American director Chris Columbus in favor of two filmmakers whose work you would not normally associate with these fantastic elements. For this fourth chapter, they chose British director Mike Newell, probably best known for the violent mob drama Donnie Brasco.
For once, and to my great relief, this story does not open with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) having to escape from the Dursley’s, the muggle family who are his less than enthusiastic guardians, a device which had grown thin over the first three films. Instead, he and Hermione (Emma Watson) going with the Weasley family to the Quidditch World Cup, which is being held at a stadium that makes the Rose Bowl look like your local softball diamond (really, I’d hate to see what the line to the lady’s room looks like in that place).
The game is interrupted, however, by an attack of evil wizards known as Death Eaters, who serve Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). After a narrow escape, it’s back to Hogwarts for another school year. This time, the school is playing host to the Twiwizard Tournament, a dangerous competition involving one wizard from each of three schools, in this case Hogwarts, the French Beauxbatons Academy and the Bulgarian Durmstrang Institute. The tournament has been judged so hazardous that now students under the age of 17 are barred from entering. However, after the titular goblet has selected an entrant from each school, it mysteriously spits out another name: Harry Potter, who shouldn’t even have been entered. Once selected, however, a competitor cannot withdraw from the tournament, even if he insists he hadn’t put in his name in the first place.
It would be foolhardy of me to attempt to further summarize the plot, since the Byzantine stories of the Potter novels and movies have reached a level of length complexity that would make Tolstoy choke. Screenwriter Steven Cloves and director Newell do an admirable job of boiling down J. K. Rowling’s novel to an almost comprehensible two-and-a-half hours. It probably helps to have read the book, but at least those of us who haven’t are not completely lost.
In addition to the tournament and the usual threats to his safety, Harry Potter must deal with an even more daunting challenge: asking a girl to the tournament ball. This exploration of our character’s adolescent pangs helps ground this story in the everyday world, despite its fantastical element.
Like the previous Potter entries, this film rests on the shoulders of its young stars, who for the most part bring it off well. The trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron (Rupert Grint) may not yet be the Kirk, Spock and McCoy of the wizarding set, but they still have three more movies to go. Like the iconic Star Trek characters, these three form a sort of triangle, with the other two forming opposing halves of the main character’s psyche. Hermione is clearly the brain while Ron gives voice to the unspoken fears of the others.
Visually, Goblet of Fire is rich and seamless. A film like this depends a great deal on atmosphere and this one is lousy with it. Even though the film is wall to wall with high-tech CGI effects, they never call attention to themselves or get in the way of the storytelling.
As each entry gets more surefooted than the last, the Harry Potter films promise several more years of top-drawer fantasy film making.