There’s a Hole in the Goblet, Mike Newell, Mike Newell

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The already legendary young wizard is at the center of an insidious plot, a dangerous competition, and romantic intrigue in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yet he’s paralyzed by fear, hormones, inexperience, and apparent apathy — which is certainly a good outline for an exciting, poignant, and perceptive movie about a teen boy.

Unfortunately, there are outside forces keeping this from happening. No, I’m not talking about He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. I’m referring to the unholy triumvirate of bestselling author J.K. Rowling, screenwriter Steven Kloves, and director Mike Newell.

That’s the trouble with being a fictional character, particularly one who makes the transition from page to screen: You always have to contend with those damned authors.

Harry Potter in Goblet of Fire is stymied by a movie that makes him more pawn than active participant, a film so concerned with barrelling through its sprawling plot that it never finds any rhythm, resonance, or even genuine conflict.

Last year, I predicted that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (or, as we call it in our house, “Ass-Cabin”) would be the peak of the film series based on J.K. Rowling’s books. Reviews of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire gave me hope that I was wrong, containing about the same level of enthusiasm as the notices for Azkaban.

This is probably a good time to note that movie critics generally are morons.

On the surface, director Mike Newell acquits himself well. He and his production team briskly move the plot forward for more than two and a half hours, create a breathtaking architectural grandeur heretofore missing from Hogwarts, and craft some truly impressive computer-generated creatures and vehicles.

Newell’s major shortcoming is a failure to give the narrative shape and feeling. The potential is certainly there — as Harry begins navigating the Byzantine rituals of courtship, genuinely dark forces are poised to crush any vestiges of childhood innocence — but Goblet is a miserable failure as a stand-alone narrative. Like the middle section of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Newell’s film operates as a functional bridge — useful and necessary in the larger journey, but lacking in elegance and beauty as an object itself. It has the texture of a formless serial: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened ... .

Not having read the books, I can’t say whether the core problem lies in Rowling’s novel, Kloves’ script, or Newell’s treatment. I can say that Rowling and Kloves have been constants in the series-to-date, and Ass-Cabin director Alfonso Cuarón managed to turn their work into a transcendent, emotionally satisfying movie.

In Goblet of Fire, Hogwarts is hosting something called the Ollivander’s Triwizard Tournament Presented by Gringotts Bank. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) Like that silly game Quidditch, the tournament doesn’t seem like much of a spectator sport, but then again, people show up to cheer at bowling and poker competitions, too.

Mysteriously, Harry’s name is placed in the Quality Quidditch Supplies Goblet of Fire for the tournament, even though by rule he’s too young to compete. The Goblet, apparently unaware of said prohibition and missing fingers with which to count, spits out Harry’s name as the Triwizard Tournament’s fourth contestant, thus making him the wizard equivalent of Penn State in the 11-member Big Ten conference.

The tournament itself is yet another of those bizarrely lazy Rowling creations in which artificial challenges are used in place of actual human drama. In this case, each wizard must face three tasks related to dragons, underwater rescue, pissy mermaids, and a malevolent hedge maze. What exactly is the point of a competition in which students — including some not actually in the tournament — are put in mortal peril? I smell lawsuits. Or is there some spell that protects one from litigation?

A critical problem is that in ways major and minor, Harry is not in control of his own destiny in Goblet. He is alternately manipulated and guided, and based on his lax preparations for the wizarding contest, he seems apathetic. This is not the stuff of interesting protagonists, let alone heroes.

The machinations are key to the larger narrative, of course, in the way that Harry is being used to help give renewed physical form to the dreaded Lord Voldemort. For cave-dwellers, Voldemort is the eeeeeeeeevil wizard who in a botched murder attempt gave Harry that lightning-bolt scar on his forehead that acts up every now and again like one of those weather-predicting elbows or knees. Except that it registers the proximity of the eeeeeeeeevil wizard instead of a cold front.

Anyway, in conjunction with the Ollivander’s Triwizard Tournament Presented by Gringotts Bank is the The Leaky Cauldron Yule Ball Offered by Eeylops’ Owl Emporium. It is as painful and dull as any social dance involving 14-year-olds and their inscrutable politics. Harry wants to go with Cho Chang, but Cho already agreed to go with fellow Triwizard contestant Cedric Diggory. Ron wants to go with Hermione but never asks her, so Hermione goes with the Triwizard contestant Viktor Krum. Harry and Ron, being enlightened fellows, end up going with each other.

There’s something distressingly passive about the entire enterprise, particularly in Harry and the ever-sullen Ron. They are in that awkward age when everything that gave them pleasure as children has lost its magic, and all that they want now is out of their reach. They seem to have given up and grown not just older but old.

Yet even that is giving Goblet of Fire too much credit. Pubescent male insecurity and paralysis are certainly fertile thematic concerns, but Newell and Kloves don’t do anything with them. The movie moves so swiftly from beginning to end that it never pauses long enough for anything to gain weight and sink in.

Much has been made of how much darker Goblet is than its forebears — oooooh, PG-13 — and it is certainly more gray, in both color scheme and mood. But the appearance of Voldemort and the death of a character don’t by themselves make something dark and heavy. As bleak and dreary as this movie is in content and style, it is fundamentally a juvenile adventure story, and a pretty damned clunky one at that.

And that’s an unfortunate step backward for this series. Cuarón’s movie was truly a work for young adults — smart, exciting, tender, sensitive, and astute. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is, sadly, kids’ stuff.

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