Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Franchise Flashback: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

The third installment of the Harry Potter series was the first to really stick. The fourth, Goblet of Fire, is the first to pack a wallop. This time under the direction of British director Mike Newell, the film is, like the others, perfect in craftsmanship but is the first in possession of a well-crafted feeling of momentum. It’s all climax, sustained for two-and-a-half hours, without ever feeling its length, constantly besting itself creating faster, scarier, and more exciting moments throughout enough set pieces to sustain a half-dozen lesser films.

Benefiting from the structure Rowling used in her book – there’s a tournament going on and Harry is a participant – the movie tears from one moment to the next, always building, and never stalling. After a scene of true horror – with an elderly man investigating what should be an empty house –we start the film proper at the Quidditch World Cup, a sequence of sensational effects and gut-twisting heights. From there we have an introduction of visiting schools to Hogwarts, a suspenseful, yet whimsical, introduction to the Goblet of Fire, and then the tournament is about to begin. From there we have dragons and mer-people and ghosts and golden eggs and mazes and murders. The tension is heightened with each new feat of effects and emotion, so that by the time we get to a wailing-strings graveyard resurrection the movie is almost unbearable suspenseful. That this sequence is followed up by an evocative punch of paternal pain (it lingers long after the movie ends), a razor-sharp reveal of a double-agent, and a somber announcement shows that the movie isn’t stopping for anything.

The reason this relentless entertainment never gets numbing is the variety. Sure, we have sensational action sequences and moments straight out of a genuine horror movie, but sprinkled in amongst these are touching, sweetly human, character moments. These culminate in the middle of the film at a school ball which may be my favorite sequence of all the films so far. The music swells, the characters arrive, and the dance begins. It’s a sensational feat of staging, design and costuming, sure, but it also allows the teenaged characters to be just that, in a sumptuous yet relatable setting. The movies are at their best when they are mere magical twists on the most muggle of feelings, like the first film’s mirror scene of longing, the classroom moments, the clashes with odd teachers and boisterous bullies, hurt feelings, wayward children and young love.

But none of it, none of it, would work if it weren’t for the amazing cast that – young and old alike – grows in size and talent with each new installment. The kids, older again, and more talented too, improve once more, growing into fine young actors with infrequent clunky line readings and confident screen presences. Daniel Radcliffe has become comfortable with his relatable reluctant hero while Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have developed excellent comedic timing and wonderfully open faces that reveal turbulent emotions and thoughtful eyes. The adult cast’s comfortability with their roles grows stronger as well with Alan Rickman, with his jet-black hair and slow snapping of lines, a continuing standout.

New this time is Brendan Gleeson, in a gleefully ominous role, and Miranda Richardson, a hoot as the worst kind of gossiping reporter. Also new is a slinky, serpentine Ralph Fiennes as the evil Voldemort himself, in the trappings of what is surely one of the most creepily designed movie villains of all time, right up there with Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader. He’s truly terrifying.

Mike Newell directs with a sumptuous eye for color and detail. This is a pure visual delight that strikes the perfect balance between the storybook tableaus of Columbus and the dense and busy camerawork of CuarĂ³n. The colors are vivid with eye-popping earth tones and gorgeously magical, ethereal even, bright blues. The tone is fluid, skipping effortlessly from creeping horror, pounding thrills, melodrama, laughs, tears and kisses and back again. Hogwarts feels the most like a real school this time with the emotions, playfulness, and drama of real high school students.

This is the most involving, the most fulfilling as a motion picture. It moves so fast, while still retaining both clarity and breathing room, I could have watched for much longer. It’s also the most expansive, the most dynamic, and the most dangerously menacing of the first four films. This is the Potter films at their best, successfully balancing while riding the lines between child and adult, fun and scary, tragic and tragicomic perfectly while also managing to capture Rowling’s tome’s tone.

Note: John Williams sits this installment out; that year alone he’d already scored Star Wars: Episode III, Memoirs of a Geisha, Munich, and War of the Worlds. He’s greatly missed, even though his replacement, Patrick Doyle, uses a few of Williams’ themes and creates some nice musical moments of his own.

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