Like a fine wine, Harry Potter continues to improve with age as each succeeding film version of Rowling's books seemingly surpasses the last. 'Goblet of Fire' is no exception with Director Mike Newell delivering the biggest, darkest, funniest, most assured and entertaining entry in the series yet. Newell, who's more famous for helming smartly written character comedies than big budget effects vehicles, proves to be a perfect fit for the film - taking our breath away with some eye-popping action sequences and computer generated flights of fancy, but all the while grounding the picture in the reality of school life and blossoming adulthood.
With the first two films Director Chris Columbus gave us enjoyable albeit bland kiddie pictures that were fun if unremarkable. Their main weakness, aside from the somewhat pedestrian direction, its that the script was far more focused on adhering to the details of the books than the spirit of them. Because the admittedly rabid fan base screamed over every detail, screen writer Steve Kloves tried to squeeze in as much from the books as possible - but in the end the narrative flow and pacing suffered from the burden of all the extraneous material on offer. Then came Alfonso Cuaron's 'Azkaban', a beautiful dark teenage fantasy film that combined a true sense of rich artistic filmmaking with Kloves screenplay which jettisoned some of the non-critical stuff in order to work better as a movie.
Now with 'Goblet', easily one of the fattest books in the series, Kloves' script has become a model of efficient and economic storytelling. Hard core fans may get very upset by the removal of useless side plots ranging from S.P.E.W. to characters like Ludo Bagman, but by doing so it allows the story to stand much more on its own as a complete film. Newell and Kloves have smartly gotten rid of many scenes that don't directly relate to the main thrust of the story - in this case the Triwizard tournament - and yet manage to keep some key subplots ranging from the romance and Yule Ball sequences to little scenes of necessary exposition and utilising them in other ways such as for comic effect (eg. Snape's class).
This streamlined approach makes this the most accessible and rewarding film yet for those not into the books, but it also is the film's key weakness in the way that some sequences and key scenes are rushed over or somewhat shortchanged. The last trial sequence has become somewhat less interesting, much of the first trial takes place off screen, and most significantly the World Cup scenes are given only a cursory glance at. Indeed a large section of the novel is devoted to the Quidditch World Cup and the events involving the Dark Mark, and yet by the 15 minute mark of the film, that's all over and done with. The match itself is not shown and the tent burning happens with only the barest of explanations (those new to the whole series will be completely lost at first). Admittedly the World Cup scenes add little to the overall arc of the story, but I guarantee you its this rushed first 15-20 minutes of the film that fans will complain the most over.
Its a good complaint to have mind you as after all, there's nothing else one can really bitch about with this movie. The young actors continue to improve with each outing, Watson and Radcliffe are both leaps and bounds better than their earlier work even if the latter at times still has the odd fallout moment. Grint's comic sidekick Ron doesn't get much to do this outing aside from a short and unconvincing subplot involving Harry and Ron having a feud. Gambon once again shows he's the best choice one could make for the increasingly important Dumbledore, Rickman as always shines with his few scant moments of screen time, and Robbie Coltrane at last gets a pretty good storyline for Hagrid. All around the performances are solid across the board with the only complaints being some characters not getting enough screen time - in this case McGonagall and Sirius Black most notably seem absent.
As for the new characters they all work well with one or two real standouts. The three young rivals in the Triwizard comp get little development but enough that we root for them (especially Robert Pattinson who gives Cedric Diggory a friendly but noble gravitas). Brendan Gleeson delivers one of the series best performances as the hilarious and acerbic Professor Moody with his wildly spinning magic eye. Miranda Richardson as nosy report Rita Skeeter does a great job reminiscent of her work in "Black Adder", but the poor lady is stuck with only 2-3 unimportant scenes which leaves many to question why they bothered. Roger Lloyd Pack and David 'Doctor Who' Tennant serve well as the Crouch family members who are key components to the story, and finally Ralph Fiennes brings a different though deliciously slithery understated take on Voldemort that many won't expect.
With careful attention to detail, Newell also finally manages to bring English sensibilities to this very English of stories. At last Hogwarts actually feels like a real boarding school - kids play pranks and gossip about other classmates, teachers aren't afraid to occasionally hit a student for misbehaviour, and the Triwizard tournament aptly gives a chance to show of a kind of patriotic sports hooliganism that starts in school life and carries on long afterwards for many people. The visuals, whilst lacking that rich oil painting gloss that Cuaron brought to Azkaban, are still quite breathtaking work. 'Goblet' captures that magical appeal that made the third one's images such an improvement over the first two but, like the script, its a darker and more efficient beast that concentrates on the job at hand.
The effects are excellent with the computer generated landscapes and magical elements rock solid and complete, leaving only a few occasions truly ringing of CGI overload. Overall the film stands tall, right up there with the likes of the "Lord of the Rings", as a perfect example of what great fantasy storytelling can look like on film. Its so great to see a series that gets not only better but richer and more involving with each subsequent chapter. Newell might have been an odd choice to helm 'Goblet', especially after the slightly more poetic work of Cuaron, but that doesn't take away from the fact that his and all the crew's work is phenomenal - delivering a film that's truly cinematic, briskly paced and wondrously inventive whilst still being very much grounded. One of the year's best for kids AND adults.