No more kids’ stuff at Hogwarts. In “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the budding teenage wizards-in-training grapple with incipient romance, jealousy and mortality. Last year’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban” seemed dark, but this excellent fourth film derived from J.K. Rowling’s books is the darkest “Potter” yet, intense enough to warrant a PG-13 rating. This factor alone will prompt another modest dip in franchise B.O. performance, as some younger viewers will steer clear, at least until homevid release. But pic’s excitement and quality bode well for sustained fan interest and confidence through the enterprise’s remaining three installments.
Worldwide theatrical gross for the three features stands at a staggering $2.6 billion, although totals have dropped with each subsequent film, from $974 million for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to $879 million for “The Chamber of Secrets” to $749 million for “Azkaban.”
After Mexican helmer Alfonso Cuaron elevated the series so considerably last year, producer David Heyman gave a second chance to Mike Newell, who turned down “Sorcerer’s Stone.” Newell becomes the first English director to have a go at Harry, and he doesn’t let the home team down.
The books’ millions of readers, youthful and otherwise, will know what’s coming: the emergence of Lord Voldemort, the ubervillain who killed Harry’s parents, was later sapped of his powers by the tyke but has now concocted an ingenious plan to trap his nemesis at the conclusion of the interschool Triwizard Tournament.
Screenwriter Steve Kloves, faced with the task of boiling the 734-page book down to manageable length (157-minute running time makes it the second-longest “Potter” picture, after “Chamber”), makes short work of Rowling’s bloated 157-page prologue devoted to the Quidditch World Cup. In economical fashion, pic reels off Harry’s nightmare about Voldemort’s return, his journey to the White Cliffs with Hermione and the Weasleys to attend the match (in an astonishing modern stadium), the fiery assault on the wizards’ massive tent city by the Voldemort’s Death Eaters (outfitted in pointy Klan-style hats) and the threatening apparition of Voldemort’s Dark Mark — a ghostly skull and snake — in the night sky.
After just 14 minutes, we’re back on the Hogwarts Express with the Fourth Years, all noticeably taller, older and more mature than in the last installment. That this year will be different from all previous years is announced by the arrival of a flying-horse-drawn carriage bearing the French female students of Beauxbatons, and the emergence from under the lake of a vintage sailing ship carrying the Middle European boys from Durmstrang.
As Dumbledore explains, this exercise in international cooperation among wizarding schools is meant to foster the age-old tradition of the Triwizard Tournament, a trio of daunting tasks to be undertaken by an exemplary representative from each institution.
General acclamation greets the selection of the representatives of the three schools: rangy Cedric Diggory from Hogwarts, foxy Fleur Delacour from Beauxbatons and macho Quidditch ace Viktor Krum from Durmstrang. But the selection of a surprise fourth contestant — none other than Harry Potter — creates tremendous consternation, as he’s underage and seemingly unprepared for the arduous tasks. Even Harry and Dumbledore are upset, as no one has a clue who submitted Harry’s name for the competition.
With so much ground to cover, Kloves has had to eliminate many story elements readers may be expecting. Absent or significantly reduced are many of the early films’ cutesier motifs, such as the animated paintings and ghostly inhabitants (with the delightful exception of Shirley Henderson’s Moaning Myrtle). The yarn has been streamlined so that even such significant developments as Harry and Ron’s falling out are compressed.
The upside is that the filmmakers keep the narrative screws fastened tight, which gives “The Goblet of Fire” an intensity that rarely flags. From the creepy, desaturated rural opening that recalls David Lean’s Dickens films to the exceptionally credible integration of effects into the live action, Newell tries to find the emotional reality in material that, until now, has been used more to showcase fantasy and wonder.
Altered emphasis requires more of Daniel Radcliffe, and he rises to the occasion with a more dimensional and nuanced performance as Harry. Having now passed decisively into adolescence, he suggests for the first time there actually may be an actor in him, as he seems more aware of, and responsive to, everything going on around him.
Rupert Grint’s Ron is another matter, as the thesp seems caught at an unappealingly awkward stage and must spend much of the time sulking over Harry’s and Hermione’s perceived slights. And why do Ron and even Harry wear their hair so uncommonly long? Ron’s flowing red locks, in particular, all but obscure his face at times and make him look like a ruddy sheepdog.
Emma Watson’s studious Hermione comes into her own at the fabulous Christmas ball, which provides a breather after the first task, in which Harry does battle with a fearsome Hungarian Horntail dragon in a gripping sequence that will have small fry ducking for cover.
The cross-currents running up to the ball make for a mini teen melodrama, with Harry keen on Asian student Cho, Ron into Hermione and the latter coy about the identity of her date until she resplendently turns up on the arm of Quidditch ace Krum.
Second task is an underwater affair with bizarre creatures that don’t measure up to the others on hand, while the third is a massive maze that leads Harry to a long-awaited showdown with the renascent Voldemort. Pale, hairless and noseless save for nostril slits, Ralph Fiennes makes the series’ villain-of-villains a distinctive monster, remorseless and cunning, in a climactic scene that does not disappoint and will, like the dragon, prove frightening to impressionable youngsters.
The other memorable addition here is Brendan Gleeson’s “Mad-Eye” Moody, this year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Brandishing large scars, a detachable leg, an ever-ready flask, an all-seeing zoom-lens false eye and an irascible attitude, Moody is one of Rowling’s most colorful creations, and Gleeson makes him all the more so.
Except for Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore, who becomes more central than ever, some of the other delightful regulars get reduced screen time, including Maggie Smith’s McGonagall, Alan Rickman’s Snape and Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, who enjoys a romance with Frances de la Tour’s Madame Maxime, the head of Beauxbaton, who’s even taller than he. A semblance of Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black appears in a scene among burning embers in a fireplace.
Miranda Richardson hits mostly obvious notes as the scandal-hungry journalist Rita Skeeter, while Roger Lloyd Pack’s Barty Crouch is a superbly drawn figure, a Ministry of Magic official who conjures up an astonishing combination of Neville Chamberlain and — due to the moustache — Hitler. David Tennant is fierce as the renegade Barty junior.
Technical aspects are of the expected high standard, with many hands, including production designer Stuart Craig, cinematographer Roger Pratt, costume designer Jany Temime, creature and makeup effects designer Nick Dudman, visual effects supervisor Jimmy Mitchell and special effects supervisor John Richardson, returning from previous “Potter” duties.
New to the team are editor Mick Audsley and, most conspicuously, composer Patrick Doyle, who briefly works in themes from previous John Williams scores, albeit in a minor, dissonant mode, but otherwise employs rich strings and a more classical frame of reference to endow this installment with fresh emotional amplification and disturbing undercurrents.
Very slowly unspooling end credits run 13 minutes, surely somewhere near the record.