There’s a new Harry Potter in town, and he’s more compelling (and perhaps controversial) than any of his earlier big-screen incarnations. No longer an awkward boy, Harry is in the process of becoming an awkward adolescent, and those youngsters who’ve grown up right along with him will find much to connect with beyond spells and sorcery.
For the first time in the boy-wizard franchise, a Brit (Mike Newell of Four Weddings and a Funeral) takes the helm, and his shared background with Potter author J.K. Rowling adds a special, English kind of originality to the material.
We rejoin Harry, now 14 and in his fourth year at Hogwarts, at the Quidditch World Cup. From the opening credits, Newell immerses the audience in an atmosphere of wonder that was never quite achieved in the previous films. In his hands, something as familiar as an athletic stadium becomes the source of amazement as the players take the field in blasts of glittering bravado. By the time Lord Voldemort’s henchmen, the “Death Eaters,” arrive and run the medieval-style tail-gate party off the grounds like a marauding bunch of magical Huns, we are already completely entranced by the world of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Once he’s safely back at school, Harry’s nightmares continue to connect him to the Death-Eater invasion. But before he has time to ponder what his dreams mean, Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) announces that Hogwarts, along with two other magic academies, will compete in the historic Triwizard Tournament - a sort of magical triathlon in which a single challenger from each school will compete in a series of tasks designed to test their wizardly skills. Thus, the arrival of the lovely French sorceresses from one prep school and strapping Eastern-European athletes from another distracts both us and Harry from more menacing goings-on.
That is until the titular goblet of fire tasked with selecting the three wizard contestants spits out four names instead of three. Though according to the official Triwizard handbook rules Harry is too young to participate by three years, the goblet insists he is to act as Hogwart’s champion.
As before, superb acting on the part of the grown-up supporting players keeps the story invigorated - the kids (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) may falter here and there, but they have the likes of Maggie Smith, Miranda Richardson and a brilliant Brendan Gleeson pulling them along. However, even with the best acting, an overzealous director who’s too heavy-handed with special effects can result in a film that’s all spectacle and no heart. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Newell interweaves considerable computer-generated delights with more tactical flights of fancy, so that, while visually dazzled, we never experience a Lord of the Rings moment where we think, “What a lovely job the production team did creating that CGI monster.”
Still, moms and dads who are worried that The Goblet of Fire may be too much for their youngsters to absorb have good reason for concern. The Triwizard showdown is no quidditch match, and the tasks the teens are asked to perform routinely put them, as well as some of their classmates, in mortal danger.
What’s more, when Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) reemerges from the shadows, he arrives in a writhing, snakey - yet oddly compelling - manner that reminded me of nothing more than Mel Gibson’s Satan in Passion of the Christ. The character is so intimidating that it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if he had started speaking Aramaic. I’m sure the correlation isn’t intentional, but it demonstrates exactly how grown-up the Potter films are becoming and that parents should carefully consider this one’s PG-13 rating.
Nevertheless, while the film ventures into darker, more dazzling waters, it also increases its humor factor, constantly taking the audience from nail-biting to laughing and back again. For kids mature enough to separate fact from fantasy, The Goblet of Fire offers them an inspired voyage of extravagant delights in addition to a few good lessons along the way.