starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint
The newest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, has at its core an emotional maturity far beyond what I expected going into the theater. Goblet of Fire, the fourth book of J.K. Rowling's mind-blowingly popular series, is a beast filled with new characters, expanded older characters, subplots, and multiple climaxes. Plus, it's long. Really long. Good (in the same charmingly derivative, easygoing, disarmingly honest way that all the Potter books are good), but long. I half expected to be treated to just a barrage of images and exposition and explosions and fighting, and to come out utterly unfulfilled.
You see, I hated the first two Harry Potter films, so I admit to being negatively prejudiced going in. Well, okay, I was only disappointed in the first film, but I utterly despised the second. Both films were populated by brilliant actors (including some very good, and a few very bad, kids), but were dull as dirt. To this day my wife, who is as ardent a fan of the books as I know, has not been able to stay awake long enough to see the second one straight through -- she's only watched it in pieces. Then, when I thought the series was perhaps just lost to film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came along, and I loved its moody, quiet beauty. Alfonso Cuaron, the new director, seemed to understand that, by focusing on his subjects as human beings and moving the magic to the background (magic wands and flying brooms being, for most of these folks, as common as microwave ovens are to us), the audience would: a) understand the story, b) care about the characters and c) marvel at the magic, specifically because the characters did not. Chris Columbus, who directed the first two films, spent all of his time and resources on "amazing magical effects" -- watching those films you can almost hear him jumping up and down whenever something "magic" happens, pointing at the screen and howling "Look at that! Magic!" In his Lucas-like obsession with special effects -- whether they served the story or not -- Columbus missed what makes the Harry Potter books stand out. Cuaron did not fall into that same trap.
Nor did the director of this newest Harry Potter film, Mike Newell. Taking a cue from Cuaron (or perhaps just because Newell is the first Harry Potter director to actually hail from Great Britain), the world he shows us is as gray and foggy and muted as it is filled with beauty. Another lesson learned from Azkaban is that Newell puts the characters front and center, embracing the fact that the true heart of the Goblet of Fire is not the Quidditch World Cup or the Tri-Wizard Tournament, or even the growing power of that baddie to end all baddies, Voldemort, but the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, and how that friendship is strained as they move into their teen-age years. Nothing, not even brushes with magical death, can rock a friendship like jealousy, unrequited romantic feelings, and a desire to just be grown-up, already, and Newell wields that knowledge as effectively as Arch-mage Dumbledore wields his wand. More than anything, this movie was a sad and beautiful reminder to me of what friendship was like before I noticed (or really cared) which girls were pretty and which were not, before I started worrying about how I looked or how people saw me, before I started to wonder how I might make my mark upon the world. Newell captures that moment in time when we all slipped from children to adults with an amazing clarity and sensitivity. One of the most beautiful moments in the film, in fact, features neither magic nor any of the main characters -- it is just Neville Longbottom (played wonderfully by young Matt Lewis), the goofy, nerdy friend (who looks startlingly like me at that same age, sadly), practicing his dancing by himself in anticipation of his first real encounter with a girl in, you know, that way. For me, this sense is what makes Goblet of Fire the really fine movie it is.
There are problems, of course, not the least of which is that the Tri-Wizard tournament, like Quidditch before it, simply doesn't make sense (why should we root for Harry, who seems to win only because he is the most successful cheater? And why can't his super-powered teachers tell? And how is score kept again?). Also problematic is the fact that, while Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) is turning out to be a fine young actor, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Ron and Hermione) are stumbling. Neither is a bad actor, certainly, but both are clinging to a broad, kiddie-acting sensibility from which Radcliffe has long since graduated, and rightly so, considering the sober, adult material they are asked to play in this film, and will be asked to play in coming films. Newell cuts around them as best as he is able, but this weakness does spoil a few key moments in the film.
In the end, though, occasional broad acting aside, I really, truly enjoyed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. A host of always fantastic adult actors (Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robby Coltrain, Gary Oldman, Brendan Gleeson, Warwick Davis and others), relegated to increasingly small roles, serves to create a foundation upon which Newell and his young stars build a really enjoyable film where special effects, amazing as they are, take a back-seat to the moment when, looking back on childhood, we realize "it's all going to be different now, isn't it?"