One of the best lines in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is brief, but it does a lot to explain why these films are as good as they are – which, by the standards of kid’s entertainment, is very good indeed. Long-standing friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and title star Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) are feuding, and Ron has asked third-party Hermione (Emma Watson) to convey some information to Harry, even though Ron and Harry are standing about 20 feet apart. Hermione explains how someone told Ron that Hogwarts gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) wants to see Harry, and Harry snaps back how Hermione can tell Ron that … and Hermione explodes with tears, crying out her frustration at how foolish her dear friends are being and the hurt it’s causing: “I’m not an owl!”
If you’ve read or seen any of Harry’s earlier sagas, the line doesn’t just make sense (in Harry’s world, letters between wizards are delivered by enchanted owls); it actually moves you. It’s a brief exchange that speaks to the carefully-crafted mythology and world screenwriter Steve Kloves has managed to flesh out even while paring down J.K. Rowling’s increasingly-large books. It also shows how well the actors who’ve been with the series from the start are able to sell a piece of dialogue that mixes real feelings with this world of fantastic wizardry. The Potter saga works so well because it manages to mix the fantastic and the real, combining natural teen social anxiety with supernatural mortal peril, mixing the hurts of adolescence with the wounds left by curses and claws. Directed by Mike Newell, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire may not be anything new, nor is it as distinctive as Alfonso Curarón’s take on the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, but it’s a remarkable piece of teen entertainment that has scares, laughs, fantastic visions and a real heart.
I say ‘teen entertainment,’ because this outing is the first time Harry’s gotten a PG-13 rating; it’s well-deserved. Rowling’s characters have matured with each book in the series, and so have the books themselves. In Goblet of Fire, Hogwarts is selected to host the Triwizard Tournament, where three students – one from each of the wizarding academies of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang – compete for the honor of winning the coveted cup. This perilous competition is limited to students 17 and older, so 14 year-old Harry can’t enter– but at the official ceremony where the Goblet of Fire itself spits out the names of the three competitors, the cup belches forth the names of Fleur Delacourt (Cleménce Poésy) of Beaux Batons, Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevsky) of Durmstrang, Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) of Hogwarts … and Harry Potter. Nobody knows how Harry’s name got in there – it’s why Ron is miffed at him for so much of the film – but as wizarding official Barty Crouch (Roger Lloyd Pack) points out, “The Goblet of Fire constitutes a binding magical contract.” (If the phrase “binding magical contract” makes you emit a snort of contemptuous, derisive laughter, then this is very much not the film for you.)
So Harry becomes part of the high stakes competition, which includes events like the spectacle of a fight with a fearsome Hungarian Horntail dragon and a challenge involving grim-looking mer-people resembling sexually predatory marlin. Harry struggles to stay in the competition, even as it becomes clear that his entry into the tournament may have been engineered for sinister purposes. This is the first Potter saga where the stakes include mortal danger, as Harry’s evil nemesis Lord Voldemort is striving regain his flesh and power; Goblet of Fire is full of PG-13 perils.
… and PG-13 passions. One of the social highlights of the Triwizard tournament is the Yule Ball where, as Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith, sherry-dry) notes, “We and our guests gather in the main hall for a night of well-mannered frivolity.” Harry can deal with people trying to kill him – it’s been the main theme of his life – but asking a date to the ball is a whole new level terror. All of this is handled pretty breezily, but it’s worth noting that the young people playing Harry, Ron and Hermione have each grown into talented actors. As Harry, Radcliffe manages to bring a certain wounded hauteur to the proceedings; at times, Harry seems like a little magical Morrissey fan. Grint manages to provide ace comedy relief as the three-quarters clueless Ron, and convey disgust for his shabby, poor and crowded family fortunes. Watson’s Hermione may be the smartest student at Hogwarts, but Watson plays her with real feelings, too, capturing all the aching see-saw swings of adolescent emotion. (Ron asks Hermione to the Yule Ball at the last moment; she explains, tearfully, that she’s already been asked by another boy – and said yes. When she does make her entrance to the ball, you can practically hear Neil Diamond’s ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ on the soundtrack as she leaves Ron slack-jawed with her previously-unrevealed glamour: From agony to victory, in a snap.)
And the actors have to be good, because even with Kloves expertly pruning and distilling Rowling’s book, we still feel like we’re skipping over things with Goblet of Fire. We meet Harry’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor, Mad-Eye Moody (played by Brendan Gleeson with bluff bluster and good humor); Harry faces the trials of the tournament; Voldemort prowls behind the scenes; Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is stalwart and cryptic as he guides Harry. And even as we proceed from plot point to plot point, we feel like there are missing bits – and not merely fan minutiae like house-elf subplots, romance between half-giant teachers or trips to Gringrott’s Pub, but deeper character shadings and moments of growth. Fleur Delacourt may be enough of a young wizard to be a contestant in the toughest, roughest life-imperiling competition imaginable in the book, but the space constraints of the film mean that she’s reduced to a simpering, whimpering object to be saved by men and boys in the film.
There are some well-drawn new characters – notably the glib scandalmongering tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter (Natasha Richardson) who pesters Harry with a Judith Miller-level talent for distortion and duplicity: “Speaking of your parents – if they were alive, how would they feel?” Harry’s parents were killed by Lord Voldemort, who finally gets his body back in this installment – notably, the body of Ralph Fiennes. Voldemort is chilling partially thanks to new-school special effects: Voldemort’s nose resembles that of a snake, which is to say it’s not much of a nose at all – I can’t honestly tell if the effect is a prosthetic added on or a digital removal of Fiennes’s actual nose, but it’s dammed creepy. Mostly, though, Voldemort is an old-fashioned, silken, hissing, (literally) reptilian bad guy of the classic British ‘talking villain’ tradition. You know the type: He gets his prey within range of a killing blow and then starts talking about his feelings, as if conducting an encounter group and not an execution. This is all weary stuff, but Fiennes pulls it off – even though I think he, and we, will need more of Voldemort’s eerie presence in future installments to fully despise him.
Voldemort’s arrival ushers in a new level of danger for the films – by the time Goblet is over, several characters are dead. These murders are neither lingered on nor glossed over, but they do mean the film may not work for younger kids. But even with the paradox of the adaptation – how odd is it that a two hour and forty minute film should feel rushed – and the possibility of inducing high anxiety in teens and ‘tweens, Goblet of Fire succeeds. It’s a noteworthy addition to the Potter saga that nicely captures all the things there are to like about the series: There’s adventure, bonding, comedy, action, romance, melodrama, a veddy veddy British sensibility that combines Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python all at once, set in a world of amazing visions and casual miracles. The best thing about Goblet of Fire, though – and indeed, the whole Potter series – is not how it shows young people doing magic, but in how it tells young people that there is something magical about friendship; not that it offers young people displays of amazing power wielded by extraordinary heroes but in how it reminds them that there is real power in the courage that can be found within everyone. Those aren’t bad messages for kids; they’re even better messages for adults.