Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Film Review - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Once more the young wizard-in-training Mr. Harry Potter has come to the rescue. Screw Hogwarts, it’s the domestic box office he has yet again saved from the brink of disaster. And for apprehensive studio executives it could not have come at a better time. If early estimates hold, the box office tally for this year will not come anywhere near 2004’s total take of $9.4 billion. Movie theatres across the United States have been suffering tremendously this year because of it. Each new weekend seems to pale in comparison to the exact same weekend one year ago. What makes this bit of news all the more embarrassing for Hollywood to swallow is that the number of tickets sold, the real indication of the motion picture industry’s progress in the course of a year, has been on a steady decline ever since 2002. And it appears as though the story this year, even with the inclusion of the Goblet of Fire’s receipts, will be no different. However, with the lower then expected returns for The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, at least thus far, the exclusion of the Goblet of Fire would have been far more humiliating for studio executives to have handled.

The story for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is quite arguably the least consistent of the four full-length feature films in the series. The first half-hour feels like an absolute blur, moving at blinding speed from one event to the next without a moment for the audience to gather its breath, take in the scenery, and figure out precisely what the Hell is going on. The film spends about fifteen minutes (roughly) setting up the Qudditch World Cup scene and yet not a single moment of the match itself makes it into the final print of the film. Why waste the effort? At the very least the filmmakers could have informed those less familiar with the novel or the franchise in general what the Qudditch World Cup was all about or who, outside of the Irish, was playing in it. However, after those first thirty minutes it is pretty much smooth sailing from there on out. The Goblet of Fire begins to truly pick up steam as soon as it delves into the Tri-Wizard Tournament in which a majority of the film’s action sequences take place in. The only issue that can be raised concerning the rest of the script is that it is continuously inconsistent in resolving a number of its individual subplots woven into the main story-arch. Particularly annoying was the one involving Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter who essentially disappears following her two brief scenes in the film.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, all of whom have remarkably matured as young performers in their respected roles since the series began back in 2001, return as Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. There is a lot more physical action stunts in the Goblet of Fire then in probably all of the other feature films in the series combined. These three should be applauded for performing their own stunts as opposed to stunt doubles filling in for them. This increases from the audience’s perspective the believability of the performances as well as giving their money’s worth having shelled out eight dollars for a movie ticket. Demonstration of physical prowess in the Tri-Wizard Tournament scenes aside for a moment, The Goblet of Fire is also emotionally wearing for Daniel Radcliffe who must establish a variety of emotions when he faces Lord Voldemort near the conclusion of the picture. Recalling Radcliffe’s performances in the last three features, he continues to give further legitimacy to Warner Brother’s decision to select him as the series’ leading star.

Emma Watson, to say the least about her, is simply stunning in this film. Granted, Harry is the central focus of the film, so she does not receive as much screen time or does not become as involved in the actions onscreen as much as she was able to in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but her appearance at the Yule ball in a dress in a moment likely to stick out in the minds of many young males.

And, yes, Rupert Grint still has his comic relief moments in the film as he always does but it is safe to say that his character is being taken a lot more seriously since The Chamber of Secrets a few years ago. There is however a bit of a problem with his character which again has regrettably to do with the inconsistencies of the screenplay then with the actor himself. Unless you read The Goblet of Fire prior to seeing the film, you would have no definitive explanation as to why Ron becomes mad with Harry after his name is pulled out of the Goblet of Fire. One could easily assume the reason is because he is tired of constantly playing second fiddle to Harry but this is never fully explained for audiences.

As far as the three other Tri-Wizard Tournament competitors are concerned, Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory has the most personality, though in all honesty this is not saying much. All three of them are rather bland and uninteresting. Unless you had read the book, you wouldn’t gather that Viktor Krum, played by Stanislav Ianevski, is the best Quidditch player in the wizarding world. True, they build the idea that he’s a spectacular sportsman but no indication that he is in fact the best there is which would build up anxiety toward Harry’s chances of winning the tournament. And unless Clémence Poésy hadn’t said something at the end of the second round of the Tri-Wizard Tournament about Harry saving her sister, you would never have known she had one. With so much information contained in the novel, the script for the Goblet of Fire by condensing everything into one two and a half hour feature film causes some pertinent background information to be lost in the process.

Gary Oldman returns, albeit briefly, as Sirius Black, the escaped convict of Azkaban and Harry Potter’s godfather from the last film. In spite of Oldman’s absence, this can however be seen as a benefit to audiences. Black’s absence in the fourth feature film unquestionably carries with it a sense of frustration. This allows us as moviegoers to be more keen to the feelings and emotions of characters like Harry which makes the end results of The Order of the Phoenix, due out in theatres in 2007, all the more emotionally taxing.

David Tennant is eerily unsettling, downright creepy even, particularly when he is flicking his tongue out like a snake, as Barty Crouch Jr., a loyal follower of Lord Voldemort who many believed had died in Azkaban prison. The revelation of his character so early on in the film – he is seen for a moment in the first half-hour of the picture conjuring the Dark Mark at the Quidditch World Cup but he however is not named – is, to say the least, a bit dampening for fans of the series. It eliminates a bit of the “who-done-it” mystery of the film at least from one perspective. What may be a bit confusing for audiences, specifically those unfamiliar with the novel on which the film was based on, is how exactly Barty Crouch Jr. was able to escape his prison sentence in Azkaban (hint – it involves his dying mother and polyjuice potion) and, in turn, how this relates to his complex relationship with his father. This is barely alluded to at all in the film.

However, the inclusion of Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort tops them all. He’s present in the film for a very short amount of time – at most ten minutes in this two and a half hour motion picture – but the anticipation that has been built up, not just by this film but the mere mention of his name throughout the franchise thus far, makes his revelation all the more significant for audiences. The makeup effects used to transform Fiennes into Lord Voldemort, particularly the obstruction of his human nose to form snake-like slits, are especially impressive.

Overall, although it was certainly nowhere near as intense or as frightening as anticipation made it out to be, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is by far the most impressive in the film franchise as far as story, acting, special effects, cinematography, and, most importantly of all, maturity are concerned. Specifically the subject of death and the serious implications young children may encounter in their discussion of the subject is handled especially well. That said however there are issues concerning the Goblet of Fire that should be addressed. Mike Newell who makes his feature film directorial debut with The Goblet of Fire does not screw up the franchise as badly as some may have imagined he would, but regardless some of the camera angles he experiments with, specifically early on in the film, are just awkward and don’t work in the least. Another concern is the script. This however is in no relation to the dialogue used but instead the amount of material included. No one will know whether Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire would have benefited from splitting the film in two or not, but it is quite apparent that too much information from the book is being crammed into this two and a half hour motion picture. The elimination of a few subplots and a revision of the first thirty minutes may have cleared up this issue but as it stands, it feels a bit too much. The bright side however to Newell’s condensation of the storyline is that the irritating house-elf Dobby is not brought back into the film series. And as always, the Harry Potter films boast an impressive array of ‘magical’ effects. But the computer generated effects presented in The Goblet of Fire, particularly the Hungarian Horntail Harry faces in the first round of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, are especially top notch. Parents however should be strongly cautioned about taking their younger children to see this film as it is given a PG-13 rating, a first in the Harry Potter franchise, for a reason. The Goblet of Fire is easily the most intense and emotionally frightening chapter in the series thus far and may be a bit too much for some children to handle, although this varies from child to child. The best advice is for parents to either check the film out for themselves or accompany them and notifying them that if it gets too scary that they can leave the theatre if they feel the need to. Nonetheless, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire continues to push the bar upon which each new film in the franchise must improve on, standing as one of the more impressive movies of the holiday season.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A-)