Your first question about "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" shouldn't necessarily be about how good it is. (Hold on to your pointy hats, the news is good.) It should be: How much time do I have? At close to three hours, the film would work well as part of an overnight package: See Harry battle fire-breathing dragons and denizens of the deep, then check into our lovely downtown Marriott!
But the fourth Potter film is otherwise probably the most engaging Potter film. Director Mike Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who has written all four) know their primary responsibility: to create three-ring spectacles like the whiz-bang, airborne game of Quidditch, or Harry's mighty tussles with otherworldly creatures. But they also allow time for the characters to breathe a little -- you know, when they're not busy casting spells.
That means examining the social clumsiness of 14-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who's possibly more intimidated by girls than dragons. Wizardry is hard. But there are no spells to help negotiate the terrors of adolescence. How, for instance, is he ever going to muster the courage to ask the attractive Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to the school ball?
If only he had time to figure this stuff out. There's hardly a peaceful moment at Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry that Harry attends with his best mates Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). For instance, he just got drafted, mysteriously, into the international Triwizard Tournament, a prestigious competition normally restricted to 17-year-olds.
How did that happen? Everyone, Ron included, accuses Harry of secretly slipping his name into contention. But he asserts his innocence. The goblet of fire, the incendiary source of divination for the tourney, spat his name out of its mystical flames. And now Harry has to face three older, more advanced contenders, in a three-trial competition that includes stealing a golden egg from a fire-breathing dragon and saving a friend while octopodan, underwater critters snap at his limbs.
As if this ordeal wasn't enough, a large skull-and-snake apparition has appeared in the skies, a signal that the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. A wizard's work is never done.
Fans of the Potter movies will be pleased to see the return of such regulars as headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), bird's-nest-bearded Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and this reviewer's personal favorite, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), a potion-mixing professor who slinks through dark corridors in funereal black and seems to lick his words before letting them loose. Fans should be even more pleased with Potter newcomer Brendan Gleeson, who deserves a golden shoplifting award for the way he plunders scenes. As Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, who appoints himself to help Harry defeat Voldemort, he's a facially scarred, cantankerous old salt, who swigs from a small flask and sports an eye patch that actually is a roving eye.
A lesser actor would have thrown himself into the role with pantomimic overkill. But Gleeson (whose performance as Irish criminal Martin Cahill in 1998's "The General" is one of the great performances of that decade) makes Mad-Eye subtly funny, with deft glints in his good eye (in hilarious ocular tango with its artificial twin), twitches of the mouth and swaggers of the head.
Readers of the J.K. Rowling novels -- on which "Goblet of Fire" and the three previous Potter films are based -- may be disappointed that many details from the book have been altered or omitted. (A maze, for instance, that figures in a climactic scene in the movie has almost no hidden creatures -- an obvious departure from Rowling's story.) But by now, they should have gotten used to this necessary evil. Movies work on a leaner diet and, if they didn't, I'd still be watching "Goblet of Fire."
There's still satisfying large-scale action and smaller-scale interaction whether it's the cool scene in which that dragon chases Harry from tower to tower, dislodging slates with its enormous talons, or Harry's confusion with smaller adversaries in dresses. Newell, who directed such assured ensemble pieces as "Enchanted April" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," knows how to maximize his actors. (He even manages to make an effective performer of Radcliffe, who will never raise an Oscar above his head, but whose clumsiness works well for Harry.) I love the way Snape delicately adjusts his sleeves just before whacking the heads of Harry and Ron, who are talking out of turn. And it was equally pleasurable to watch Ron's embarrassment when he's called out in front of his peers to demonstrate the waltz with the severe Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith).
"Put your hand on my waist," she demands frostily. The expression on Ron's face at this point is clear: He'd just as soon perform the fox trot with Medusa. It's a wonderful mark of this movie that a teenager's humiliation can pack just as much firepower as a life-and-death battle with scary monsters.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (160 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.