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Movie Review: Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire

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Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire
Director: Mike Newell
(Warner Brothers)

When it comes to book-to-movie adaptations, I’m no purist. Sure, I like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books – love them, in fact, to the point where each time I crack a new one open, I won’t rest until all the previous installments have been re-read. But that’s never stopped me from enjoying the film versions, and it certainly didn’t blind me to the merits of Alfonso Cuaron’s stylish, visionary (and therefore controversial, at least to the most zealous of Rowlingites) Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. Let’s face it: I don’t give a shit whether the director failed to find room for every miniscule detail of the book version, or whether he dared to move Hagrid’s hut and give Hogwarts an Eastern European gothic makeover. If you want slavish recreation, go read the books again. Cuaron’s Potter was – and remains – the best in the series because finally, someone had entered the franchise who had the balls to take some risks. As for the fourth and most recent installment (helmed by Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell)…well, let’s just say the renaissance was nice while it lasted.

Not that Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire is a bad movie…it isn’t. It’s slick and it’s entertaining, and I know a lot of less film-oriented fans who call it the best of the series. But for me, that kind of hyperbolic praise has a lot to do with Goblet of Fire‘s rigor as an adaption and very little to do with its achievements as a movie. Newell’s approach to the film is nothing if not safe, recalling Chris Columbus’ first two installments with its episodic narrative and flashy visual effects. One gets the sense that the director doesn’t trust his audience to be amazed by the magical world of Harry Potter, at least not without aid from his brutishly unsubtle guiding hand. In some scenes, this heaviness of touch comes off as merely over-the-top: the Quidditch World Cup sequence has all of the high-budget glitz of a Super Bowl Jumbotron animation, but none of the mystery and mysticism of wizardry. Other times, the larger-than-life stuff is just ridiculous – as when Newell’s camera dollies in dramatically on a boot, the score by Patrick Doyle building to its climax whole seconds before anything actually happens onscreen. Granted, anyone who’s read the book knows that boot is a Portkey…but taking that portion of the audience which hasn’t read the book for granted is something Goblet of Fire does far too often. Coming out of both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, I could never help but wonder whether non-fans would be able to walk out of the theater and understand what the hell they had just watched. After having watched this fourth movie, I can now say with some assurance that the answer is “no.”

Goblet‘s most glaring flaws, however, are nothing new; nor can they be attributed entirely to hamfisted direction. It has become more obvious from film to film that Daniel Radcliffe, despite his physical resemblance to the Harry Potter we all seem to imagine, just doesn’t have the acting clout to pull off his increasingly challenging role. Yes, his acting is still wooden – so much so that he can say a straightforward line like “I love magic,” in the midst of a movie that’s chock full of the stuff, and I as an audience member won’t believe a word. And yes, he still has the irritating habit of showing emotion by clenching his jaw and snarling; a quirk we saw a lot of in Azkaban and are fated to see even more of here. But Radcliffe isn’t the only problem. No longer content to merely replicate Richard Harris’ superior performance, Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore has begun to appear dangerously unhinged: stumbling, shouting and slurring like a drunkard through practically every scene. Frankly, the only real breath of fresh air in the acting category comes as late as Goblet of Fire‘s final moments, when Ralph Fiennes appears as a strikingly believable and human (not to mention genuinely disturbing) Lord Voldemort. The film’s earlier standout performance, Brendan Gleeson (Kingdom of Heaven) as Mad-Eye Moody, looks a lot like empty hamminess by comparison.

It’s a shame, really, that the newest Harry Potter fails to live up to the standard set by its Cuaron-directed predecessor; there are moments here of genuine magnetism, from the harrowing race through a living maze for the Triwizard Tournament to the climactic graveyard showdown, a true high-point in the series so far. But more so than any of its predecessors, Goblet of Fire feels flat and lifeless, a dry run through highlights from the book which could have been better achieved by another reading. Maybe timing is the issue: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy took fifty years to transition from book to feature film, while The Chronicles of Narnia by Tolkien’s contemporary C.S. Lewis just finally got the ball rolling this month. How, with film versions of Rowling’s books being produced virtually concurrently with the literature, can we expect an interpretation with a creative and visionary edge? Aren’t these stories just too fresh in our minds for that?

Perhaps. But while these Harry Potter movies do undoubtedly have their appeal, one thing is becoming clear: that appeal ain’t exactly cinematic. Welcome to the magical world of visual Cliffs Notes…we’ll see you again come 2007.

Reviewed by Zach Hoskins

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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