Finally, we’re getting somewhere. After taking over the minds and hearts of children around the world (and, sadly, more than a few middle-aged men) several years ago with the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, British author J.K. Rowling is only one novel away from completing her series, and Hollywood has almost kept in step: Smelling licensing deals like sharks scenting blood, Warner Bros. has released film adaptations of the first four books, with more on the way. The first two films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, were geared toward younger audiences and directed by Chris Columbus, who belongs in the pantheon of uber-hack directors like Renny Harlin. But 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had Alfonso Cuarón at the helm and was satisfyingly darker in tone and content than the first two films. Each story represents a year for Harry and friends at Hogwarts, the academy where they and other young wizards are trained in the ways of spells and potions, and the latest film, Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, finds them dealing with death, relationships, and the baptism by hellfire known as puberty. Finally, we’re getting somewhere.
Things start off well enough, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) attending the Quidditch World Cup with friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Right from the start, the game pulses with edge, excitement, and effects that are infinitely better than the cartoony hijinks of the first films; it’s enough to make you forget that the scoring rules are fairly ridiculous. In fact, it’s a shame the sequence isn’t longer, and its truncated feel is the first sign that, whatever the film may achieve, Rowling’s book, which clocks in at an uncompromising 734 pages, will undoubtedly be superior in plot development, something Tolkienites learned the hard way and that Lewis’ faithful fans will soon experience. Anyway, the game serves as the first warning that Harry will soon have to deal with his very own nemesis, the Dark Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry’s parents and attempted to kill Harry but instead imbued him with powerful abilities.
Returning to school, the new year brings with it the Triwizard Tournament, a supernatural Olympics for young magicians in which Hogwarts competes with two other academies: one populated solely by beautiful French girls, and the other, the Sons of Durmstrang, populated by brooding young Russian men. Granted, the forceful introduction of large groups of the opposite sex into the mix is a little obvious, and Rowling’s fondness for rearranging letters to form “new” words, e.g., turning Sturm und Drang into Durmstrang, is definitely starting to wear thin, but Newell makes it work. The focus here is less on grade-school literary tricks (seriously, any kid who couldn’t figure out that “Erised” was “Desire” backward needs some help) and more on the emotional demons that begin to present themselves in the lives of 14-year-olds who suddenly find themselves flush with hormones and feeling like they’re having midlife crises before they can shave.
Harry’s latest crisis is his unwilling entrance in the tournament, a contest limited to students older than 17, though Harry finds himself once again dropped into deadly situations by the adults in his life. That seems to be one of the themes Rowling develops: No matter how much magic you learn, the grownups will always know more, and they’ll use it to screw you over.
Although the games require Harry to contend with a dragon and rescue his imprisoned schoolmates from an underwater prison guarded by merpeople — ah, high school — his biggest challenge stems from dealing with a truly dangerous pack animal: the 14-year-old girls. The tournament hosts an accompanying formal ball, and Newell brings a life and relatablity to these scenes that’s been missing from the earlier films. Yes, it’s all well and good to tell a story about an 11-year-old boy learning how to ride a magic broom, but as George Lucas proved with Star Wars: Episode I — The Really Boring One with the Kid, it’s hardly compelling cinema. But the seemingly bottomless confusion that comes with being 14, the abrupt changes in personalities and relationships, and the pain that seems too cruel to be survived; well, that’s more understandable. The best stories hang their hats on pain, and Newell’s smart enough to use it as the thread that holds the film together. Like I said, now we’re finally getting somewhere.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course, including the series’ best chase and suspense sequences to date, as well as some disquieting violence, but I’ll leave that to you. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Voldemort, lithe and regal, and completely evil. Radcliffe isn’t great, but he’s improved by turns throughout the series, and Grint and Watson have gotten better as well. What was a few years ago a story about a lonely boy, his geekier best friend and the bossy girl they hang out with has turned into, if not an engrossing teen drama, then at least an enjoyable one. Grint’s Ron, the Zeppo of the group, begins here to show the first hints of jealousy at Harry’s celebrity, and Watson is turning into the cute girl that could drive a wedge between any number of relationships (although just when you started to think she was cute is a litmus test for how much time you should spend in prison. I’m looking at you, guy in his late 30s who writes disturbing fiction based on these characters. You sick freak.).
Newell’s able direction is aided by the screenplay by Steve Kloves, who also adapted the first three books for the screen, as well as handling the adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys for director Curtis Hanson. Kloves has a real knack for literary-based screenplays; his works manage to convey the spirit of the story to the screen while retaining substantial plot points and, often, dialogue, and he should share in any praise Newell receives for the film.
The intense sequence that serves as the film’s climax centers on the tournament’s contestants working their way through a maze, a thin metaphor for the mystifying roads ahead of Harry as he slogs his way through the rest of his adolescence. The walls keep moving, an unfair but accurate portrayal of what likely lies ahead for the hero. But if this film is any indication, we might all want to stick around to see how things turn out.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()