Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, fourth in the fantasy franchise, is the most fun and the most fraught with conflict. The wizards-in-training are so caught up with competition on the playing field and dance floor that their minds aren't on Potions. Then again, they might be thinking about the formula for Love Potion No. 9.
Two demons plague Harry in Goblet of Fire - the nefarious Lord Voldemort and puberty. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) makes both look equally daunting.
Truth be told, Harry looks calmer battling the murderer of his parents than he does asking the fetching Cho Chang to be his date for the Yule Ball, the Hogwarts prom.
With impressive concision, screenwriter Steve Kloves condenses J.K. Rowling's brick of a book so that the first 100 pages zip by in 10 minutes of screen time.
Harry and friends travel via Portkey (the terrestrial version of a wormhole) to an international Quidditch tourney, an event that through Newell's eyes resembles a cross between Woodstock and the World Cup, with a little Renaissance Faire thrown in for good measure.
The first Brit to helm an episode of the series (after American Chris Columbus and Mexican Alfonso Cuarón), Newell builds his story not through ominous set pieces but rather through texture and detail. His enchanted medievalism suffuses cold and forbidding Gothic stone buildings with the comforting warmth and scent of hot mulled cider. He is the guy you want to usher the saga and its stars through the awkward age.
Newell's film is darker, metaphorically and literally, than the previous three, with fantasy violence and suspense that earned it a deserved PG-13 rating. It is too intense for those younger than 8.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) seems to age three years during the course of this 2 1/2-hour film, which works to the story's advantage.
In the film's opening, Harry thrashes with a violent nightmare that portends the resurrection of Voldemort. In the next sequence, Lord V, evidently reanimated, scathes the sky with his Dark Mark, a chilling prologue to Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts.
Although only 14, Harry is chosen by the flaming chalice of the film's title to compete in a Triwizard Tournament restricted to students 17 and older. Meeting a challenge that's difficult even for those more mature than you is the theme of the film. Harry's labors, which include spiriting a golden egg away from the nest of a horned dragon and rescuing beloved ones from the bottom of a seaweed-strangled lake, would make Hercules age a decade.
Radcliffe looks the part, even if he does not bring much emotion to it. For the human factor, Newell relies on the vibrant Emma Watson, whose Hermione is emerging as the real actor of this teen wild bunch, as poised and focused as her hair is flyaway. Of all the younger actors, only she delivers something to Newell's in-your-face close-ups.
Replacing the late, incomparable Richard Harris, Michael Gambon makes a credible Dumbledore impersonator, though he lacks Harris' mirth and twinkle.
Sure-footed in its buildup, Goblet of Fire stumbles in its climax. What we can't see scares us more than what we can see. Too bad Newell details Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in all his hairlessness and noselessness. He is reptilian but not repulsive, less resembling the repository of evil than a casualty of plastic surgery who overdid the depilation and rhinoplasty.
Fortunately, the film recovers from this anticlimax, enough to hope that Newell returns for another episode of the remaining three.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com.