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AT THE MOVIES: Harry Potter Grows Up: The Goblet of Fire (***)

Well, Harry doesn’t so much grow up as finally come into his own powers. It’s difficult, at this rate, to distinguish the Harry Potter movies, coming at us as they do, one after another. We know that Harry will be teased, put down and forced to get himself out of dangerous situations. But only in The Goblet of Fire do we begin to feel the excitement of what is really like to be immersed in J.K. Rowling’s world.

Under the direction of newcomer to the Potter series, Mike Newell, Goblet of Fire zips along for about two and a half hours. Most children will be riveted the entire time, a feat very few films achieve.  During this action-packed, terrifying movie, not a child stirred, not even for a bathroom break. 

We catch up with Harry, Hermione and Ron as they take on, gasp, puberty at Hogwarts. Suddenly, there are pretty girls and boys with body hair. Unfortunately, this latest development renders Hermione completely useless in Goblet, reduced to quivering about how cute some of the boys are, how much fun dancing is, and why Ron and Harry don’t see her as the soon-to-be knock-out she really is.  Hermione, in the previous films, did more than bat her eyelashes and provide motherly support for the two boys.

Apparently the novel (you try reading it) gives Hermione a lot more to do, but the film has seen fit to cut all of that out (admittedly, it involves a house-elf, which could have killed the film with one ghastly Jar Jar-esque stroke). But as a result, poor Hermione is essentially window dressing. She would be horrified at this idea. 

Goblet of Fire finally brings Harry together with Voldemort (played here by a nose-less Ralph Fiennes) so that the evil lord might finish what he tried to do to Harry as a young’n and hints at his ultimate calling as the best do-gooder the wizard world has ever known. 

The film revolves around a special wizard tournament in which Harry must do battle with the greatest champions the contest knows. One of the problems with the Potter series is that you know all too soon that not only will Harry be the one chosen to do the most difficult and dangerous tasks, but he will almost always prevail. This eliminates some of the surprise element; they can’t keep selling him as the underdog if he always comes out on top. 

Nonetheless, it hardly matters, with Steve Kloves’ tight screenplay and such marvelous supporting performances – Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Robbie Coltrane in their usual form, and stealing the show is Brendan Gleeson as “MadEye” Moody – a delightfully creepy villain. 

As Harry, Daniel Radcliff is as sweet and charming as ever; adolescence hasn’t yet morphed him into someone unrecognizable, like it can for some kid actors. Likewise, Rupert Grint is passable as Ron, though like Hermione, he doesn’t have much to do here. And though Emma Watson makes a lovely Hermione, her major accomplishment here is showing up at the dance in the right dress.

The Potter franchise appears to be an always reliable good time for audiences of all ages but Goblet proves that it is growing with its core audience – delving into deeper and darker themes of Potter and what it will ultimately mean when he comes of age.  This film deals with a death of a schoolmate, and for that, the film makes children confront something they rarely do in films aimed at them: grief.  Bad guys die all the time, but good guys never do.If the last film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was to date the strangest and most artsy, Goblet is the certainly the most satisfying drama of the bunch. Most children have far more advanced imaginations than any film could ever match, but Goblet comes pretty close. Even those upset by the changes in their beloved book must admit, it’s a hell of a good time– even with the curious absence of Hermione’s obnoxious but essential type-A personality.

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