To date, J. K. Rowling has completed six Harry Potter books, with the projected seventh, according to Rowling, intended as the climax to the series. Thus, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, book four — and now film four — represents the series’ midpoint.
It's his fourth year at Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now 14 years old. He's wearing his hair quite a bit shaggier these days, as is his buddy Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and several of the other guys. Longtime pal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) is poised on the verge of becoming a lovely young woman — along with half of their classmates. And, of course, they're all starting to notice one another.
The magic of childhood is over, and Harry and his friends must master a new, infinitely more daunting kind of magic. Halfway through the story, Harry has faced down possibly the most dangerous breed of dragon on earth, yet he still hasn't worked up the nerve to face up to a girl and ask her to the Yule Ball. Ron is incredulous: If Harry of all people can't speak to a pretty girl, what hope is there for Ron? “I think I'd rather face the dragon,” Harry sighs.
As Harry grows up, the series continues to grow darker. Previous installments have featured bad wizards as well as monsters; here for the first time we meet an evil wizard cult, the hooded Death-Eaters, secret disciples of the devilish Lord Voldemort. In the past, Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts training has covered scary and evil creatures. But this year the class's newest teacher, Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), ups the ante to an even more sinister form of evil: the three Unforgivable Curses, punishable by life in Azkaban prison.
In the climax, like Luke Skywalker crossing light sabers with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, Harry finally goes wand to wand with Voldemort himself. There is also a nasty ritual to restore Voldemort (who has lost his corporeal form, like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings) to bodily existence. And, for the first time, Harry faces the death of a character he knew and liked — though not one of the recurring characters, a hurdle he faces in a later story. (In keeping with the heightened stakes, Goblet of Fire is the first film in the series to carry a PG-13 rating.)
As the series has progressed, Rowling's books have increasingly become a victim of her success. The author (and her editors) has grown more and more unable or unwilling to edit her work. The first book was only 300 pages, but the next few books grew at a rate that doubled or even nearly trebled with each passing volume — 100 pages here, 300 pages there — until book five hit a series high approaching 900 pages, close to three times the length of the original. This will make for a rather ungraceful boxed edition one day.
Thankfully, the exigencies of popular moviemaking have impelled Hollywood to do what Rowling and her editors wouldn't do. For the first two films, director Chris Columbus and series screenwriter Steven Kloves reverentially sought to cram in absolutely everything they could from the first two books, but by the third installment there was no way for Kloves and one-time director Alfonso Cuarón to avoid making significant cuts. Unfortunately, they cut some of the wrong threads, and the story fell apart somewhat, making the third film the shortest and the most watchable, but also the least coherent.
With Goblet of Fire, Kloves and incoming director Mike Newell (Into the West, Four Weddings and a Funeral) have done the best job so far trimming the fat from the story. Gone is the obligatory introductory ritual humiliation of Harry's horrible Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, the plight of the house-elves and Hagrid's history and interests. Even the Quidditch World Cup is over before it begins.
The story races to Hogwarts and the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a prestigious but controversial academic triathlon pitting a single champion from each of three wizard schools against one another in a series of highly dangerous challenges.
The story moves efficiently from one set piece to another, slowing down only for the Yule Ball. Alas, with so much territory to cover, some characters get short shrift: Hermione's scenes are too often shrill and indignant, and Ron is demoted from comic relief to just plain whiner. On the other hand, Goblet offers some of the series’ most magical imagery, such as the wonderful arrivals of delegations of students from the two other schools.
Concerns relating to Harry's study of magic and the lure of the occult are, arguably, increasingly remote. (For an in-depth discussion of moral issues relating to real-world and imaginary magic, see my booklet-length essay “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” at www.decentfilms.com/commentary/magic.html.)
There's plenty of fantasy or fairy-tale magic in Goblet of Fire — dragons and winged horses and mermaids, flying broomsticks and magic wands, teleportations and transformations. Yet, interestingly, the only elements that in any way resembles real-world occult practices are unambiguously evil, from the Unforgivable Curses to the quasi-sacrificial ritual used to restore Voldemort. The secret Death-Eater cult, which resembles a satanic coven, is also thoroughly evil; there is no such thing as a “good” coven. Lawful magic in Goblet of Fire bears no resemblance to so-called “white” magic as practiced by occultists; there is no divination, no invocation of spirits, no summoning of the dead, and no reliance on amulets or charms.
As Harry's adventures become more involved and urgent, the films have less time to spare on Harry's classes or his petty rivalry with odious Draco Malfoy. At the same time, the challenges Harry faces reveal more of his character than we've seen in previous films, as Harry slowly starts to earn the hero status thrust upon him at the outset of the series.
Content advisory: Much fantasy action and violence; strong menace and frightening images; fantasy presentation of magic; some sexually charged content (nothing offensive). Teens and up.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.