by David Cornelius
It’s curious to think of Mike Newell, director of such small-scale works as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco,” helming the latest Harry Potter adventure. But then we come to the middle of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” in which the story takes an enchanting step away from the action. Here, Harry and his friends attend a grand winter ball, and the plot is allowed a chance to rest while we catch up with the characters. It’s sweet, it’s charming, it’s endlessly involving, and it’s an unexpected detour that helps make this the best yet of the “Potter” films.Of course, there is still adventure, and plenty of it. Newell keeps the action zipping by at just the right pace, and the plot - which involves a contest between wizard schools in which students must compete in three dangerous competitions - is smartly designed to allow for the right increases and breaks in the action. There’s a rhythm to this “Potter” that works wonders. It’s not pushy in its set-ups, it’s not stumbling in its delivery. Everything runs smoothly here, carefully balancing broad action sequences with intimate character development.
"The most magical yet."
Only in the final scenes to things hint at going off track. There’s a plot sidestep in the last twenty minutes or so, with the film breaking away from the main story and working instead with themes involving the bigger picture. This section of the film, which exists mainly to help set up the next sequel (as well as tie in ideas from earlier films), doesn’t quite connect, and yet it works, thanks to some smart writing from series scripter Steve Kloves (once again adapting the novel by J.K. Rowling - but you knew that already). Kloves makes sure to provide a slow, quietly growing build-up to this finale into earlier scenes, so when these final moments hit us, they’re not completely out of left field.
It’s a juggling act, to be sure - but then, so is the entire movie. Here we have a film that is far darker than any before it in the series, yet it is also warm, friendly, and at times, very, very funny. Let’s go back to that winter ball for a moment. Here, the series is allowed a moment to breathe. Hagrid, the gentle giant played lovingly by Robbie Coltrane, is given his own delightful subplot, in which he finds himself head over heels for a woman who’s just his size. The nerdish Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), previously seen only in throwaway moments of comic relief, is promoted here, with the dork learning to dance, getting the girl, and even helping to save the day; it’s such a sweet, tender addition to the story that one can’t help but smile any time Lewis steps on screen.
Which is part of the “Potter” magic. The producers had the foresight to long ago cast its minor roles with as much precision as its major ones. As such, supporting players such as Lewis are allowed to shine as the series progresses - and the audience is rewarded for sticking with the series. (Even Tom Felton, who, as the sniveling Draco Malfoy, was the weakest part of the first film, has grown into a dependable team player; his improvement over the years has become very satisfying.)
Of course, the series’ stars are growing as well. The trio of Daniel Radcliffe (playing Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) have for years now been the best young actors around. You’d think that being the most famous teenagers in the world would cause them to take it easy with their performances, but no, these three have worked hard to improve. With “Goblet of Fire,” we get the best out of all three; just as the characters are growing, becoming more complex (and, therefore, more interesting) with age, so are the actors. It would be a major gamble to give the final moments, which leave Harry an emotional wreck, to a young star - if that young star were anyone other than Radcliffe, who handles the material with remarkable ease.
On the grown-up side of things, we once more get the usual band of British delights. Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, and Timothy Spall are among the returning adults whose appearances produce nothing but smiles. New to the series for this latest adventure, we get the brilliant Brendan Gleeson as a crazed, one-eyed professor (this goes with the series tradition that the Dark Arts teacher becomes the best of the adult roles, Gleeson’s performance being both outrageously cartoonish and marvelously detailed, which is not as paradoxical as it may sound), Miranda Richardson as a sleazy gossip columnist, David Tennant as a mysterious baddie, and, in an ingenious bit of casting, Ralph Fiennes as Harry’s ultimate enemy. This cast proves once again that the “Harry Potter” films are, if nothing else, an excellent collection of some of the world’s best performers.
The cast now fully praised for another job well done, let me return to Newell. It’s a most pleasant surprise to see this filmmaker, who made a career out of personal, low-key storytelling (the closest thing to grand adventure in Newell’s catalogue is the 1992 Irish fantasy “Into the West” and a few episodes of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”), deliver such a sweeping epic. Here is a movie mammoth in scope - watch as Newell plays with the sheer largeness of it all, always finding a way to let the special effects work with, not against, the massive widescreen imagery. This is a breathtaking work, as gorgeous as it is involving. From the chilling underwater photography to the eeriness of the hedge maze and beyond, there’s always ample supply of eye candy on display. Right from the start, we’re floored with the size of it all, enjoying the spectacle of a Quidditch championship in the world’s largest stadium. Big, this early scene tells us, is going to be the order of the day.
And yet Newell and Kloves ensure that the epic is allowed to become an intimate one. I’ve been told by Potter fans that much of the book had to be deleted for the movie to fit into a 150-minute running time; these omissions may be noticeable to the Potter fanatic, but not to me. For someone unfamiliar with the books, I couldn’t tell a single note was missing. We get everything we should in order to enjoy watching these characters and their grand adventure evolve.
Finally, it’s time to mention the question on every parent’s mind: is “Goblet of Fire” too dark? Granted, it’s the first of the series to earn a PG-13 rating, and it is noticeably scarier in (all the right) places. But like “Revenge of the Sith,” it’s not so dark that kids won’t be able to handle it, especially if you’re the kind of parent who tends to talk with your wee ones before and after the film. Besides, it’s brave of Rowling to refuse to keep her series bright and cheerful; growing up is, after all, all about learning of the darker things in life, and the “Potter” series is all about growing up, the good and the bad. The darkness here is far from gratuitous, and it’s tempered with enough of the old charm that it fits perfectly.Besides, it’s ultimately a necessary part of the larger unfolding story, and that’s what “Goblet of Fire” finally reveals to us. As a stand-alone feature, “Goblet of Fire” is a glorious work, but more so, it’s the film that announces to us grand plans for the seven-film arc. If Newell’s movie is any indication, then great things are ahead for Harry Potter, his friends, his enemies… and his audience.
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originally posted: 11/21/05 21:54:29