Looking for a trouble-free year at Hogwarts for a change, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself unwillingly entered in the brutal TriWizard competition, up against a fellow Hogwarts student (Robert Pattinson) and two others from visiting schools. With the assistance of loyal friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Harry seeks to reveal who has put him in harm's way yet again. As Harry struggles to stay alive during these brutal contests, his investigations and dreams lead him to Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who is making new efforts to rise again and exact his revenge.
"Goblet of Fire" (IMDb listing) is the crucial transition film for the Harry Potter franchise, taking it from a story of childhood wonderment to a tale of destiny. Transitions also take place behind the scenes, with some major changes in important artistic roles. Instead of demoralizing the series, the alterations to the Potter fabric reinforce the material, making "Goblet of Fire" the strongest entry to date in this powerhouse fantasy franchise.
In the last installment, 2004's "Prisoner of Azkaban," director Alfonso Cuaron took the series to gloomy reaches, far away from the more lighthearted, magical take on the material that filmmaker Chris Columbus trusted. New helmer Mike Newell takes the reigns of "Goblet of Fire," and his difficult job is to juggle between the two moods, as the story for the film certainly is the darkest yet of the series. At first glance, Newell is an odd choice, spending his career making character dramas ("Donnie Brasco," "Four Weddings and a Funeral") and mostly forgettable fare ("Pushing Tin, "Mona Lisa Smile"). He would've been one of the last names associated with a monster-budgeted, effects-filled franchise film like this, yet the producers knew something the prerelease hype didn't. Newell's calm direction is a huge asset to the success of "Goblet of Fire," along with his accomplished work with actors and production design.
Newell guides the film gracefully, and manages to keep his head above water with this elaborate story. A massive book trimmed to a 157-minute film, "Goblet of Fire," like the other "Potter" films, takes huge leaps in storytelling, trying to cherry pick the best set pieces of the book and build an organized narrative around them. Returning screenwriter Steven Kloves deserves massive credit for wrestling the J.K. Rowling world into semi-coherent films, and "Goblet of Fire" represents his best work to date. Using the TriWizard championship as the core of the story, Kloves is allowed to branch out and assist the characters' needed maturation, while still being able to return to the excitement of the wizardry and action with enormous scenes of immaculate Hogwart's mayhem. As a non-reader of the books, I've become used to keeping one step behind the story, trusting that fans of the page are drinking in every last detail. However, while the climax gets a little punch drunk, Newell is still able to keep the Muggles as invested in the story as the fans, which wasn't always the case in the previous films. "Goblet of Fire" is easily the most confident of the series, with the production finally comfortable with the demands of the divided audience, and not afraid to please both.
The highlight of the film is a mid-movie ball sequence where crucial moments of teenage lust and cruelty are showcased, finally giving the series an accurate portrayal of adolescence. Since the theme of the film is transformation, Newell gives time for the three leads to grow into awkward teenagers, complete with self-conscious behavior and bickering. Newell and Kloves use the ball as a setting for Harry, Hermione, and Ron to begin confronting their newly thorny friendship, and to a smaller degree, their burgeoning sexuality (also seen in a moment with Harry in a bath while Moaning Myrtle comes on to him). The sequence is also a rare chance for the story to take a breather and enjoy the characters and the surroundings, without having to breathlessly cram exposition into every frame (which crippled "Azkaban"). It's an unusual moment of pageantry for the series, but it elevates the characterizations away from the gee-wiz level they were stuck at, and lays the groundwork spectacularly for the hormonal trouble that lies ahead for the trio.
Also new to the series is the PG-13 rating. If the first three films were enhanced by their sense of awe, "Goblet of Fire" signals that the story is now heading into darkness and unknown dangers. The picture opens with a snake slithering slowly out of a skull, showing early on that Newell is upping the scare factor this time around. "Goblet of Fire" isn't a gratuitously violent film, but it's creepy and potentially disturbing to younger viewers, along with being the first "Potter" film to have a sizable body count. Harry's challenges in the tournament might be unsettling to some, but that's really kitten play once Ralph Fiennes enters the picture as Voldemort. Fiennes hisses and rages as evil incarnate, providing enough of a reason for the new rating with his menacing scenes alone.
Rejuvenated by an epic score from Patrick Doyle (who abandons the expected John Williams themes) and teeming with luxurious, detailed CG images (including a huge Quidditch stadium, underwater danger, and dragons), "Goblet of Fire" easily overcomes the stinging absence of beloved characters (Alan Rickman's delicious Professor Snape merely cameos here) and an overall sunny disposition. "Goblet of Fire" is certainly the most satisfying Harry Potter adventure to come down the pipeline, and if the final, bittersweet moments of the film are any indication, the complications and threats awaiting Harry in the future should make for dazzling cinema.
Filmfodder Grade: A-