Four Wizards and a Funeral

Harry Potter goes through growing pains

In the fourth Harry Potter film, the adventures are more perilous, the spells more powerful and the young wizards' own bodies roiling with tempests of pubescent emotion. In the end, someone even dies. Yes, true to the prerelease hype, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fireis most definitely not kids' stuff—the film, and the lives of its characters, have graduated to a PG-13 rating—and as one who has never read so much as one page of one Potternovel, I can only imagine where it all goes from here. (Specifically, I imagine a Part 5 in which an antiestablishment Harry blasts gangsta rap out of his iPod and starts referring to Dobby the house elf as "Shorty.")

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire traces the events leading up to and constituting the storied "Triwizard Tournament," a sort of triathlon for magic people, pitting Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry against two rival academies—one consisting entirely of the sashaying French schoolgirls, the stuff of many a schoolboy fantasy; the other an army of burly, grunting Eastern European bodybuilder types (also the stuff of schoolboy fantasies). As for the titular burning chalice, it will magically select the names of the three wizards—one from each school—worthiest of the Triwizard competition. There's just one catch: Competitors must be at least 17 years of age, which makes 14-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) ineligible. The End.

Well, not exactly. Believe it or not, by the time Goblet of Firereaches the terminus of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, Harry hasn't just turned the Triwizard Tournament into a four-way affair and performed beyond all reasonable expectation. Someone, you see, has a vested interest (and hardly a benevolent one) in making sure young Harry survives this arsenal of fearsome challenges.

The Tournament itself makes for an engaging spectacle, sure to rekindle fond audience memories of childhood intermural athletics: Harry does battle with a fire-breathing dragon, at one point nimbly chasing it around a steep shingle roof, then later navigates his way through a shape-shifting hedge maze that can turn entrants nearly psychotic with championship lust. The versatile director Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Pushing Tin), who's actually the first native Brit to take a crack at a Potterpicture, pulls off these effects-intensive sequences with aplomb, if admittedly none of the transcendent imagination that Alfonso Cuarón brought to last summer's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—still the series' best effort. But before the games begin, we're subjected to a litany of tedious pre-show entertainments, including the Quidditch World Cup (which I'm told takes up more than 100 pages of Rowling's book), the Yule Ball (Hogwarts' version of a homecoming dance), and a tentative romance between the giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and the equally formidable Madame Olympe Maxime (West End grande dame Frances de la Tour), headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy. All of which, while reasonably amusing, feels like something that the Potterfilms have thus far been free of—a marking of time.

And Goblet of Fireis disappointing on other counts, too. For the second in their series of obstacles, the Triwizard contestants must rescue, from the icy Black Lake, a close friend (in Harry's case, Hermione) who has been abducted, rendered unconscious and deposited in the boggy depths by the tournament coordinators. It's a scenario whose unfathomable cruelty neither Newell nor veteran series screenwriter Steve Kloves seems fully prepared to confront. Nor do they seem any surer what to make of the weirdly jealous behavior shown toward Harry by his best mate Ron (Rupert Grint) in the wake of Harry's ascendant celebrity. (By the time Ron stops speaking to Harry out of wounded pride, adolescents in the audience may wonder if they're watching not an adaptation of J.K. Rowling but rather that staple of every middlebrow middle school education: John Knowles.)

I suppose what I'm getting at is that adolescence is no less sticky a situation for multibillion-dollar movie franchises than it is for young witches and wizards, and what is a Part 4 if not the cinematic equivalent of those awkward tween years? More often than not at this point in a series, novelty wears thin and reinvention abounds—Jason Voorhes bites the dust, Jar Jar Binks takes center stage, and the crew of the Starship Enterprise plops down in San Francisco Bay—to varying degrees of success. So why not a little teen angst for Harry and company, especially when the actors' own gangly growth spurts (particularly Grint's) have caused them to resemble oversize Alices traipsing through toy-box wonderlands? Purists, of course, will point out that this is all derived verbatim from Rowling's 700-page tome—and far be it from me to suggest that a movie should succeed on its own terms.

For this viewer, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Firecame alive only in the presence of a supposed dead man—specifically, the nefarious Lord Voldemort, who brought the lives of Harry's parents to their untimely ends some 13 years ago, left Harry's forehead emblazoned with its distinctive lightning-bolt scar and now guides his young archnemesis toward a fateful showdown. Resurrected here in the form of a nearly unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes, ashen of complexion and devoid of hair and nose, Voldemort is like a primeval poltergeist loosed from the deepest recesses of childhood paranoia. From the moment he appears onscreen three-quarters of the way into the picture, I was as if a child again, shivering under my bed covers from some gruesome night terror; then the lights came up, and like the teenage Harry, I was all too abruptly returned to a world where there are things far graver than nocturnal phantoms.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE WAS DIRECTED BY MIKE NEWELL; WRITTEN BY STEVE KLOVES, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY J.K. ROWLING; PRODUCED BY DAVID HEYMAN. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.

 
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