As pop culture phenomena, J.K. Rowling’s jaw-droppingly popular Harry Potter novels and Warner Bros.’s movie adaptations seem to have parted ways somewhere around The Prizoner of Azkaban. The fever pitch of fandom surrounding the books has abated not one bit, and the obsession there, I think, remains with Rowling’s magical universe and mythology, the substance of the epic seven-book saga. The fascination with the movies, on the other hand, has become less with seeing the story on film than with the process of the books being transferred to film. What will they cut from the next 800 page novel? Who will they cast as Umbridge? (Answer: Vera Drake‘s Imelda Staunton, a great choice.) And most of all, look at how our three intrepid stars have grown! Hermione is hot!
While all this was going on, Alfonso Cuaron, taking over from the competent hackery of Chris Columbus, did a funny thing: he made a great movie. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a miracle, really: Cuaron found a way to tap into everything human and frightening about the story. He let Harry rage and kick furniture; he expressed the depth of the friendship between our three protagonists without pandering; he pushed the limits of the PG rating to tremendous effect without compromising the film’s status as a grand family entertainment.
Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is entertaining, no doubt. It’s dark and daring; the novel takes a shockingly violent turn in its final pages, and the PG-13 rated film doesn’t shy away. As a concise adaptation of an enormous text, it is certainly admirable: it never drags, and all the pieces are here. As the franchise’s official graduation from kid stuff to bona fide fantasy, it certainly serves. Hell, maybe it’s only appropriate that the ridiculously talented Cuaron made the “transition” movie and quit while he was ahead.
Many things are done well. I dare not reveal the identity of the actor who plays the dread Lord Voldermort in his revived state, but it is an inspired choice, and I liked the lack of reliance on CGI in his portrayal. Those who have read the book know that the climax involves the death of a major character, and the movie gives it real heft without descending into the maudlin. A lot of Goblet of Fire works; individual scenes are pulled off perfectly; some are even improved.
What’s missing is a sense of these characters: who they are, what frightens them, what drives them. Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves do a nice job of staying true to the source material despite having to excise hundreds of pages; the characters do the same things they do in the book, with the same motivations. But books are not movies, and Cuaron made Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore and the rest come alive on the screen in a different way than they live on the page. Here, they are mostly going through the motions. We get the enviable treat of seeing a great book reproduced in audiovisual form, but that is about all we get.
Perhaps I am hitting this point too hard. Newell is an old hand at this, after all, and Goblet of Fire is just a dandy adventure film, exciting, scary, well-crafted. Harry’s climactic confrontation with Lord Voldemort is positively masterful; better, really, than I could have hoped. The Yule Ball subplot, in which romance and hormones finally intrude on the Harry Potter universe, is entirely non-obnoxious, and leads to the film’s single most effective character-based scene, as well as the high point of Emma Watson’s performance in the franchise. And Mad-Eye Moody, one of Rowling’s most colorful personages, is absolutely hysterical as played by the amazing and deranged Brendan Gleeson (my favorite working actor, natch).
I could keep going. Patrick Doyle, taking over from John Williams as the composer, pretty much one-ups the great one even as he uses the themes that Williams originally composed for the franchise. Robert Pattinson is just perfect as Cedric Diggory. Etc., etc. I even admit that I want to see it again. If I grade Goblet of Fire less generously than the two Chris Columbus installments, it is only because the standard has evolved with the franchise.
Harry Potter is growing up, and it is good to see the films grow up with him. The hope is that directors taking on future installments of this series will realize, as Cuaron did, that the movies are beholden to the novels to a certain extent, but can live and breathe on their own. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a good film, but this part of the story has largely remained on the page.