H.P. and the Goblet of Fire, part four in the series, has a relative existence. We ask ourselves how well it translates the novel from which it springs, and how it compares with the three films which precede it. And, on both fronts, the news isn’t great. Unlike, say, the James Bond movies, the Potter series builds on itself: even in the books, J. K. Rowling has come to rely on the knowledge her readers already possess rather than creating discrete episodes. The films, however, didn’t feel completely interdependent, until this one. Director Mike Newell, of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, has created a Potter film lacking enough character exposition to satisfy even an informed Potterhead, while at the same time relying on the knowledge said Potterhead must have to even begin to grasp this film.
Harry, his sidekicks Ron and Hermione, and their teachers and classmates all seem to be acting in some kind of shorthand: a dispute between Harry and Ron (unpleasant things are said, eyes are rolled) is evident, while its cause is not. The emotional ties between the kids are reduced to showy temper tantrums, their close relationships with their teachers, especially Hagrid and Headmaster Dumbledore, tangible in previous films, have vanished. This can be blamed, in part, on the ever-increasing length of successive installments of the story: it’s obviously getting harder and harder to fit the 400+ page (soon to be 700+ page) novels into 2 hour film slots. Peripheral characters and subplots are distilled to sitcom-like simplicity. And the thing that makes the books so engaging, their emotional content and personality, disappears completely.
There are things to admire about HPGF: Newell’s British background comes through admirably with the most convincing depiction of English boarding-school life yet seen in the series. There’s a brutal quality to the teasing and disputes, and the sport, that feels true, and is a radical departure from the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” vibe of the earlier films. The picture overall is darker, and scarier: a child in the lobby after the screening I saw asked another, smaller child “Did you see Voldemort’s eyes, like slits? Or were you too afraid to open your eyes?” The scene in question was 10 minutes long, and it seemed entirely plausible that an under-10 would cover her face for the duration.
And the special effects are stunning. Harry has to outwit a dragon in the first part of the “Triwizard Tournament”, for which he has been specially selected, and both the dragon, a “Hungarian Horntail” and its chase of Harry over the roofs and towers of Hogwart’s is spectacular. An extended underwater scene, the second Triwizard trial, finally delivers on a CGI promise made, but hardly fulfilled, in the underwater scenes from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: it’s beautiful, and utterly convincing, even when malevolent underwater pixies come in for their close-ups and reveal themselves to be angry kewpie dolls with tentacles. Ick.
Goblet of Fire is worth watching, if you’re a fan or a CGI aficionado, but if you’re neither you’ll find it heavy on spells, and utterly lacking charm.