FILM REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Unlike Peter Pan, that other magical airborne boy of British literature and film, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter just keeps growing up. So do the Potter movies, in size, in ambition and in visual splendor - and with increasingly stunning results.
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is the latest film adventure for the bespectacled student sorcerer of Rowling's amazingly well-imagined Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And it may be the best-filmed Potter of them all - though last year's Potter No. 3, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," already took a quantum leap forward in quality and sophistication.
Yet this new picture raises the stakes again. Crammed with dragons and wizards, mad-eyed watchdogs and will-o'-the-wisp charms - but also with a surprising new dark maturity that embraces real death and the nature of evil - "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the first PG-13-rated film in the series, is the most adult of all the four Potter movies to date. Following Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, now 16) through his fourth year at Hogwarts and his 14th year of life, the movie once again shows him learning the wizard profession with his chums, spunky Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and sometimes jealous Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and it's pretty much a constant marvel.
Technological marvels don't always make for good movies, of course. The first two installments struck me as a little over-confectionary and overloud. But "Goblet" has enough sense of real kids maturing and believably facing problems to cast some genuine spells.
Most important, this is the story that finally puts Harry face to (not quite) face with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the evil nemesis who killed his parents. Producer David Heyman, cinematographer Roger Pratt and new director Mike Newell help flood the screen with the usual technological amazements: incredibly believable phantoms, flying submersible sailing ships, dragons, golden eggs, living paintings and lively stained-glass windows, a rollickingly opulent kids' costume ball and a vast forest maze that suggests a jacked-up version of the climax of "The Shining."
Then there's the Goblet itself, a magical vessel filled with blue flame from which magisterial head Hogwartian Professor Dumbledore (played by that matchless "Singing Detective," Michael Gambon) pulls the names of the young wizard-school champions who will compete in the suitably spectacular Triwizard Tournament.
One of them, of course, is Harry - unexpectedly, since he's technically too young to get it on with his over-17 fellow contestants: scowling Bulgarian Victor Krum of Durmstrang (Stanlislav Zaneski), heartstopping French Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) of Beauxbatons Academy, and the actual Hogwarts champion and B.W.O.C. (Best Wizard on Campus), stalwart young Brit Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson).
Yet the goblet somehow also coughs up Potter's name, to the consternation of both Harry's friend (Ron) and foe (Tom Felton as spoiled rat-brat Draco Malfoy). Soon, the chosen quartet are off on a series of mind-bending contests, leading to a surprisingly grief-stricken, semi-inspiring resolution.
Newell's "Goblet" isn't a perfect coup. It's not quite as fancifully funny and smashingly inventive as director Alfonso Cuaron's "Azkaban," nor as smooth and seamless a piece of storytelling. Writer Kloves' scenario is cleverly compressed, but it still seems a little overstuffed. And of course it is: 734 pages of novel jammed into 157 minutes of screen time.
That crammed quality is most evident in the movie's first half-hour or so. Immediately after the titles, the filmmakers hurl us into a dark, sweaty kiddie-noir nightmare starring the unseen Voldemort and insidious little ratfink Wormtail (played by that magnificently mole-faced "Secrets & Lies" guy Timothy Spall), then shuttle us through Hogwarts' halls and zip us off to the Olympian spectacle of the Quidditch World Cup, a super-sports match in a gargantuan multimedia stadium, packed with roaring throngs and rainbow teams.
Then, right in mid-Quidditch, they cut to a torrent of campsite devastation wreaked by the Death Eaters, followers of the corpselike, "Seventh Seal"-faced Voldemort.
That whole stretch may be fairly confusing if you haven't read the book. But the rest of the movie is crystal-ball clear. Knowing the devotion of mainline Potter fans, producer Heyman and writer Steve Kloves stick as faithfully to Rowling as possible. And just as "Azkaban" surprised with its wild wit and fantasy, "Goblet" has some spells up its sleeve, plus a breadth most of the other films lacked, a deeper sense of character and a really wonderful British cast.
Most moviegoers know the "Harry Potter" kids very well by now, and it's fun to see the trio of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint edging toward adulthood. (Watson is the one edging most gracefully.) But if "Goblet" seems, in the end, the most deliciously British of the film Potters, it's due both to the versatile hand of the series' first British director, Newell (he's the maker of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Into the West," "Enchanted April" and "Donnie Brasco," and you can see touches of all of them here) and the really glorious British adult cast Heyman has assembled.
The fearsomely gifted ensemble includes old faces such as Gambon's Dumbledore, Spall's Wormtail, Robbie Coltrane's friendly ogre-ish Rubeus Hagrid, Alan Rickman's dolorous/obnoxious Professor Severus Snape, Maggie Smith's splendidly tart Professor Minerva McGonagall and Gary Oldman's fire-faced killer Sirius Black.
But there are new Brits as well, including Fiennes' Voldemort, Miranda Richardson as sexy/nasty gossip columnist Rita Skeeter and, most memorably, the quintessential Irish thug Brendan Gleeson ("The General") as Harry's ferocious guardian and the school's unbuttoned new professor of defense against the dark arts, Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody. (The "Mad-Eye" refers to Moody's madly huge and bulging left eye, which has a life of its own.) That cast, which suggests the ensemble riches of Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," is so loaded that you could mount a great repertory season with it, topped off with a fine "Macbeth."
One can only hope that, as the "Potter" kids grow, they'll win some of the grand maturity of their adult teachers and monsters. This new "Harry Potter" has an epic quality that you don't usually find in children's movies - except in the odd classic like "The Wizard of Oz" - and it's a rare big-budget spectacular that really uses special effects and digital magic well. I doubt many Potter fans will be disappointed, or even many non-Potterers - even if the very adult qualities that make this "Goblet" special shrink its audience a little.
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
Directed by Mike Newell; written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; photographed by Roger Pratt; edited by Mick Audsley; production designed by Stuart Craig; music by Patrick Doyle; produced by David Heyman. A Warner Bros. release of a Heyday Films production; opens Friday, Nov. 18. Running time: 2:37. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sequences of fantasy violence and frightening imagery).
Harry Potter - Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley - Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger - Emma Watson
Rubeus Hagrid - Robbie Coltrane
Lord Voldemort - Ralph Fiennes
Albus Dumbledore - Michael Gambon
Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody - Brendan Gleeson
Rita Skeeter - Miranda Richardson
Minerva McGonagall - Maggie Smith