Now that puberty has struck the Harry Potter universe, the series ought to move away from the insipid kid stuff. But there’s still all that huffing and puffing of computer-generated phantasmagoria to contend with, involving fire-breathing dragons, shape-shifting mazes, and magical wand lighting effects. This gives a quick fix to the fantasy crowd, but to anyone who expects a little more for their money, the entire Harry Potter franchise has proven itself old hat. The characters still react to spells with profound amazement, but we’ve been so inundated with Lord of the Rings and its ilk that this Hollywood manufactured magic has primarily lost its luster. Whenever a mystical beast showed up, I inwardly sighed, knowing I’d have to endure a barrage of phony baloney effects. You just know Harry will pull through, so there’s not much in the way of suspense. The best one can hope for is the filmmakers will speed through the action promptly and efficiently, and at 157 minutes this entry in the series unfortunately drags on.
What’s more fascinating about the Potter series, following the somewhat inspired awkwardness of emerging puberty in Prisoner of Azkaban, is watching young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) figure out what to do with their emerging sexuality. The best sequences in Goblet of Fire have little to do with whether evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, his performance buried under a ton of stretchy make-up) will kill Harry, since that outcome is never in doubt. Instead, the best sequences involve Harry and Ron’s shy inability to muster up the courage to ask Hermione to the annual wizard’s ball and her seething frustration with her pathetic Jules and Jim compatriots. Her interest in a handsome young jock (strapping Bulgarian Stanislav Ianevski) who treats her like a princess at the ball gets ruined by Ron’s bitter sulking and Harry’s complacent indifference. Goblet of Fire taps into that bitter curse of inarticulate young love, particularly inspired in a scene where Harry works up the nerve to ask another girl to the dance and getting politely, gently rejected.
Those small moments of teen angst, which seemed to comprise the whole of the generally superior Prisoner of Azkaban (where David Thewlis’s werewolf professor set the stage for suppressed desires raging within), are handled well by the teen actors, now in their fourth year at Hogwarts and growing agreeably into their roles. But what would Harry Potter be without its conventional Nancy Drew plots, which always somehow overwhelms the character development by having Harry & Co. undergo various trials by fire. This time, it has to do with the Triwizard Tournament, which pits Harry against student representatives from rival schools, which, as usual, is an elaborate trap schemed by outside forces to bring about the return of Lord Voldemort. The weakest scene, indeed, involves the return of Voldemort in a creaky graveyard. Considering he’s the most one-dimensional stock villain imaginable, at least at this point in the Harry Potter series, there’s remarkably little in the way of threat coming from the Dark Lord.
That leaves the assembly of British character actors to pick up the slack, and many of them turn in enjoyable cameos as they punch in their clocks. Brendan Gleeson has the most fun as a Dr. Strangelove type: a one-legged, one-eyed, battle-scarred professor waddling around the hugely constructed CGI sets giving his fellow cast members the evil (one) eye. Michael Gambon takes wise old Professor Dumbledore in an earthy, humane direction, and Miranda Richardson hams it up beautifully as a smarmy journalist. The usual suspects (Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane) have their moments to shine, while unlucky Gary Oldman’s appearance is as a CGI facemask of talking coals and embers emerging from a fireplace.
Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuarón showed sensitivity to the characters and placed them in a Charles Dickens landscape, attentive to all the musty details of aged locations. Goblet of Fire is a workmanlike effort by Mike Newell, who helmed Four Weddings and a Funeral and shows no talent for action sequences but has an underlying sweetness in his approach to young love. Audiences that have grown attached to young Harry, Hermione, and Ron will be pleased to see them working through their growing pains. Would that the fantasy elements of the Potter series were as fantastic as the simple act of surviving young adulthood.