I’ll make no bones about it: I am a Potter man, through and through.
Perhaps the majority of the disgruntled, middle-aged baldies who comprise the homogenous world of film criticism and can’t tell a horcrux from a hippogriff, can give you a review based more on cinematic merit than adoration. But for those who treasure this series like I do, I can say with confidence that “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is easily the most satisfying Harry Potter film thus far.
This is not to say that newcomers to Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry should stay outside the grounds. Even those who haven’t seen the first three films will easily pick up the particulars of the wizarding world. Much of the more complex stuff has been snipped out of the film altogether (the broomsticks-and-bludgers game of Quidditch is mentioned in passing, but its complex rules are never discussed). “Goblet” adroitly combines Hollywood action and thriller genres with a sturdy narrative backbone and more than a little hormonal voltage for good measure.
The film’s PG-13 rating is well-deserved. In his fourth year, Harry participates in the Triwizard Tournament—a sadistic series of tasks to win the Goblet of Fire—taking the viewer along for a terrifying ride including dragons and carnivorous caverns. Along with these visually rich action scenes are moments of awkward adolescent romance, such as the Yule Ball, an event like Eliot Fete on anabolics, replete with a rave-out performance by the paler members of Radiohead and Pulp.
Humor keeps this “Potter” chapter from immersion into tonal darkness, much of it emerging in dialogue invented in the adaptation from J.K. Rowling’s text. Ron breathlessly justifies asking French Triwizard contestant Fleur Delacour to the dance: “She was walking. You know how I like it when they walk.”
In a nighttime stroll, Beauxbatons headmistress Madame Maxine plucks something out of companion Hagrid’s beard and eats it, without skipping a beat in their conversation. And in perhaps the film’s funniest moment for Potterheads, the platonic Hermione-Krum relationship of the book is sullied with suggestions of snogging, when she dismissively refers to her admirer as a “physical being.”
This is the first Potter film for director Mike Newell (“Donnie Brasco,” “Mona Lisa Smile”), and nothing in his canon thus far could have predicted the astonishing visual dexterity he brings to “Goblet.” Newell’s vision avoids the cringe-worthy pandering of the first two Chris Columbus-helmed films and steers clear of the obvious filmic handprints that Alfonso Cuaron left all over his Gothic recasting of “Prisoner of Azkaban.” In fact, it’s difficult to speak of Newell’s vision at all, as the images and story he presents are such a faithful distillation of its source material that it’s ultimately the voice of creator J.K. Rowling that emerges most strongly.
Emma Watson deserves straight Os in her acting OWLs for finally bringing a full-blooded Hermione to screen. She convincingly exudes incandescent giddiness in her scenes at the Yule Ball, and turns a brief confrontation with Ron over his belatedly asking her to the dance into a teary confessional spectacle. As Ron, Rupert Grint has essentially tapped one emotion (apprehension) and one expression (eyebrows arched in apprehension) for the first three films, and this emotionally roomier role goes to great lengths to develop him as a character.
In the titular role, Daniel Radcliffe is again the weakest link among the trio of protagonists. The fault is hardly all his, as the “Ironman”-like magical tournament gives Harry no opportunities to flex his mental muscle in solving them. But Radcliffe is still a stiff actor, and only in the emotionally draining scene at the film’s conclusion do his acting lessons bear fruit.
Screenwriter Steven Kloves, adapter of all four film versions, redeems himself for the gaping plot holes of “Prisoner of Azkaban” with an airtight “Goblet” script. With so many significant plot elements missing (Hermione’s humane S.P.E.W. campaign, house elves Dobby and Winky), one would think a two-and-a-half-hour version of the 734-page book would suffer from confusing narrative jumps. But Kloves deftly untangles the knotty story surrounding the film’s sneaky mysterious villain and at times plots a more logical procession of events than Rowling herself. In a work focusing on the exploits of the most famous wizard in the world, it is Kloves that ultimately emerges as the film’s real hero.
—Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at email@example.com.