Forget cute-sounding words like Muggle, clever names like Severus Snape and curses called Cruciatus or Imperious.
The true charm of Harry Potter’s lavish world is that its creator, J.K. Rowling, has created a responsible, straightforward look at teenage reality through a fantasy lens.
Personal responsibility, sexual awakening, angst, questions of loyalty and wrenching complications of unexpected death play out at an academy for budding wizards as they might at, say, Degrassi.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire radically jolted readers farther than before in that direction, and the film adaptation — the best so far — points the movies down the same path.
The dramatic difference in this film installment from the previous three is that it’s the first to feel truly inspired by its source, rather than just a template re-creation. Goblet of Fire seems to have the most special effects of the four, but they feel the least flashy.
Instead, conflicts now have weight and, yes, blood behind them. With stacked skulls, knife wounds and straight-up murders, this isn’t your 10-year-old’s Harry Potter.
By comparison with the ratings bump for Episode III of Star Wars, this freshly PG-13 franchise has far less gruesome physical violence. But no Potter movie has had such a sense of atmospheric dread. Evil Lord Voldemort is on the rise. Seemingly, no one at Hogwarts can be trusted. Even an end-credits ballad, sung by Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker, mentions “last dances” and “final chances.”
And there’s some mildly suggestive stuff here. Teenage boys steal glances at teenage girls, and an amorous ghost ogles Harry in a bathtub.
This doesn’t mean the film is as close to a perfect Harry Potter movie as we’ll get just because it’s dark and acknowledges sexual attraction. It’s because its key players are aware of actual life.
New director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) feels no need to wow us with the same stuff we’ve seen before. (Two minutes of a Quidditch World Cup is just fine.) Steve Kloves, who has adapted all four films, retains a sharp eye and ear for what to keep and what to toss out. He deserves special kudos for paring down a 734-page novel into a 157-minute movie that moves.
And Daniel Radcliffe, as the title character, continues to mature as an actor through this character. Given his mouth must spew forth so much plot this time around, Radcliffe’s pauses for emotional connection are even stronger.
Harry is being haunted by recurring dreams of a slithering snake in a grimy graveyard and the presence of Lord Voldemort, both Harry’s nemesis and the murderer of his parents. He’s also targeted when Voldemort’s soldiers tear apart a World Cup encampment in a swift, scary scene.
On top of that, he is somehow selected to participate in the Triwizard Tournament, a voluntary three-school competition for students 17 years and older for which Hogwarts is the host school. Problem is that the 14-year-old Harry didn’t volunteer for this contest, all the more dangerous now that he must dodge peer jealousy and scorn in addition to feisty dragons and persistent Mer-people.
While trying to determine who schemed to get him in the tournament and why, Harry also tries to find a date for the Yule Ball. The nervous coping mechanisms for Harry and his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), generate distinct levity and truth. They’re also the first chinks in their seemingly impenetrable triangle of friendship.
Even with large chunks gone, the movie still crams in too many characters. Miranda Richardson’s accuracy-challenged journalist Rita Skeeter is an underused afterthought, and the shortchanging of Alan Rickman (as Snape), Michael Gambon (as Dumbledore) and Gary Oldman (as Sirius) will be troublesome only to those unsure of how they’ll factor in the next two tales.
But the film concludes with its greatest magic — not pretending that growing up doesn’t change everything. There still might never be a flawless Harry Potter movie, but this one’s awfully close.