Apparently, the fourth time’s the charm.
After three arguably failed attempts at adapting J. K. Rowling’s fantastical stories to the silver screen, the latest installment in the Potter series has finally done its book justice. In “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) finally gets right what his predecessors Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron did not — like some sort of cinematic Goldilocks, Newell has found a happy medium between the work of Columbus and Cuaron and created the mama bear of Potter movies. Columbus was overly faithful to the original text, resulting in what felt more like illustrated versions of the books than movies, and Cuaron unnecessarily strayed too far from the details of the novel. And while “Goblet” is far from perfect, Newell has managed to stay true to the text without sacrificing the awe-inspiring magic of the original story. At last, a director has managed to recreate the engaging and exhilarating drama that has made the books such an irresistible phenomenon.
The movie’s explosive beginning at the Quidditch World Cup sets the stage for what proves to be the most action-filled of the Potter films. Highlighting the decidedly more impressive special effects Newell and team brought to the project, the film’s computer animation is incomparable to the cheesy, animatronics-like creations of the first three movies (remember Aragog or the basilisk?).
But the bright lights of the World Cup quickly fade as the story darkens. Campsites at the Quidditch match are set ablaze by a troop of Death Eaters (in Klan-inspired attire). And as Harry’s evil-incarnate arch-nemesis Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eater attacks nicely foreshadow the Dark Lord’s rebirth at the end of the film.
In “Goblet,” the central conflict between Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe, whose development as an actor is just as interesting to watch as the development of the character he brings to life) and You-Know-Who takes its shape in the form of the TriWizard tournament — a legendary competition between student representatives from Hogwarts and two other European wizardry schools: Durmstrang and Beauxbatons. As its name implies, the tournament has always been between a single champion from each of the three schools — until Harry Potter is inexplicably chosen by the Goblet of Fire to compete as the fourth champion.
Against dragons and merpeople as well as his rival competitors, Harry is lucky to have the help of faithful sidekicks Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Thankfully Grint has started to sharpen his acting skills, and for the first time, in “Goblet,” does not use his signature Ron expression (that pouty deer-in-the-headlights look) to universally convey the entire spectrum of human emotion. Watson, on the other hand, gives her same satisfactory, albeit overly-theatrical, performance as Hermione. But she is too pretty for the role; described by Rowling as plain and bushy-haired, in “Goblet” Watson is easily the most attractive of the Hogwarts ladies.
Similarly, Michael Gambon, who took over the role of Dumbledore from the deceased Richard Harris, has interpreted his character in a way that seems completely foreign to the portrayal of the sage headmaster in the books. He is pushy, overly-stern and a bit frenetic — not at all like Rowling’s original portrait of a calm, wise wizard with a playful gleam in his eyes.
The performances of Miranda Richardson as invasive journalist Rita Skeeter and Brendan Gleeson as new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody are exceptional, however. And Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and Alan Rickman as Snape continue to impress, and the little camera time they are afforded leaves the audience craving more.
But these performances, while strong, are not enough to carry the entire movie, and “Goblet” remains far from flawless. The film’s greatest weakness is how writer Steve Kloves (who has written for all of the Potter movies) adapted the lengthy story to film. While the plot of the original story undoubtedly had to be abridged (the book was over 700 pages), many excised subplots, while they may not have substantially affected the individual plot of “Goblet,” will affect later movies if Warner Brothers hopes to create a cohesive adaptation of the series — perhaps unlikely given their choice to give each film to a different director.
Furthermore, in Kloves’ attempt to both shorten the voluminous text of the original novel while including its most exciting and crucial points, transitions between scenes are weak and “Goblet” feels like a montage of the book’s most memorable moments.
The rebirth of the Dark Lord is both grotesque and disturbing, and Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the embodied Voldemort is superb (and he manages to do it all without the benefit of a nose). Yet for all of Fiennes’ evil genius, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, was much scarier when he was also He-Who-Could-Not-Be-Seen. The Voldemort of Rowling’s books is taller, thinner, paler and seemingly less human. And while Ralph Fiennes surely delivered the best performance that can be expected, the truth remains that some of Rowling’s magic can never be translated to film.
Defects aside, the film remains the strongest in the series and is still worth seeing. It will prove the most satisfying of the films thus far to both Potterheads and those who haven’t read the books. As Harry utters in amazement at the Quidditch World Cup, “I love magic.” And so do we Potter, so do we.