Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) didn’t ask to have his name drawn from the titular vessel in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He didn’t ask for the “honor” that obliges him to participate in a life-threatening magical competition that was only supposed to be open to students older than 17, not an inexperienced 14-year-old like Harry. He has been hurled into adulthood so much earlier than he feels ready for it, and'perhaps worst of all'he’s going to have to do it by himself.
J. K. Rowling’s mega-selling series of books has been talked about for any number of reasons: its pop-culture ubiquity, its ability to make a generation of video game and iPod junkies actually read, its alleged unhealthy influence on those same readers by dealing with the occult. What has often been lost is how unflinching the author has been in addressing the sometimes perilous touchstones of her characters’ growth from precocious 11-year-olds into teenagers. Director Mike Newell’s (Four Weddings and a Funeral) version of the fourth book keeps a surprisingly tight focus on the unnerving, dark, appropriately PG-13-rated changes in Harry’s world as he wrestles with transformations that have nothing to do with magic.
In fact, magic takes a noteworthy back seat in Goblet of Fire. Yes, the centerpiece Tri-Wizard Tournament is a magical competition that pits host school Hogwart’s against two rival European academies. True, there are still classes to take for Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson)'including yet another new Dark Arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson). And of course, there are still evil machinations afoot involving Lord Voldemort, whose band of loyalists'called Death Eaters'has re-emerged.
But from start to finish, there is less wizardry involved in Goblet than in any previous Potter installment. Instead, the emphasis falls on those bursts of irrational emotion and constant fears of humiliation that practically define adolescence. Harry and Ron have a falling out over Ron’s belief that Harry has made an intentional grab for glory by sneaking himself into the tournament. Both of them agonize over finding a date for the Yule Ball, while finding it hard to wrap their heads around the realization that their friend Hermione is actually, you know, a girl. And in one charming scene, Harry finds himself desperately embarrassed at being caught in the bath by the ghostly Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson).
Goblet nails these moments of youthful unease, yet it’s also dealing with Harry’s sense of alienation in a broader sense. This story often finds him without the certainties that anchored his previous years at Hogwart’s, and not just the previously mentioned physical or emotional separation from his two best friends. The always steadfast Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at times appears completely confused by the events going on around him; institutions, in the form of the Ministry of Magic, seem to be acting more out of concern for public-relations appearances than the safety of individuals. “You’re not alone,” Dumbledore tries to assure Harry at one point, but it’s easy to get caught up in a story that makes it clear he’s finding that harder and harder to believe.
Newell'a terrific director of actors'turns out to be an ideal choice for this particular installment, but he’s not as comfortable with the other places a Potter film is expected to go. The few action sequences'an attack by the Death Eaters; Harry’s duel with a dragon'feel awkwardly constructed, the edits often too hurried. He hasn’t got the knack for grand-scale fantasy that Chris Columbus brought to the first two films, nor is he a visual storyteller on the level of Prisoner of Azkaban’s Alfonso CuarÃ³n, so there are bound to be places where Goblet feels less thrilling than its predecessors.
It is, however, at times the best film of the bunch, simply because it gives its characters so much room to breathe. Perhaps part of that sense comes from the unique experience of watching its three young stars grow up and grow more confident as actors. But it’s also a crucial element of this series, more so even than wands and Whomping Willows. J. K. Rowling has created an epic about three young people on the complex journey towards maturity, and the most enchanting experience of all might simply be taking that journey with them.