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Monday, November 28, 2005

Harry Potter and the onset of puberty

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Three and a half stars out of five
Dir: Mike Newell
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson

The fourth installment in the Harry Potter series may be the most action-packed yet, with J.K. Rowling's eponymous boy wizard attending the quidditch world cup, participating in a dangerous magic competition, going toe-to-toe with his archenemy and, most frightening of all, making his first foray into the dating world.

Taking the helm of the Potter franchise for the first time, director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) does a credible job of chronicling the adolescent crises of the three teenage protagonists at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but has discarded all the novel's other subplots in an effort to turn Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into a streamlined suspense thriller.

For purists, the excising of Hermione's crusade to free the house elves and the Weasly twins' attempts at entrepreneurship will smack of heresy, as will the drastic reduction of the role of gossip columnist Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson). But in adapting a 700-page book for the screen, obviously something had to go.

What remains is a series of well-done set pieces strung together by scenes explaining what we are about to see or have just seen.

Also gone is the usual comic opening sequence with Harry's dreadful (but now totally unseen) relatives, the Dursleys. In its place is a brief trip to the world cup of quidditch--a sort of soccer-basketball hybrid played on flying brooms--that focuses mainly on the camping accommodations, with only enough of the event itself to introduce one of the main supporting characters, quidditch star Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ivanevski). The campground is attacked in the middle of the night by henchmen of Potter's archfoe, Lord Voldemort, and the story is off and running.

The now extensive backstory is explained during the standard train trip to the British magic academy, during which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) meets his romantic interest, Cho Chang (Katie Leung) and in typical teen fashion is tongue-tied at first sight.

There are three main storylines interwoven in Goblet of Fire. In the foreground is the Triwizard tournament--a dangerous competition between Hogwarts, the fetching Frenchwomen of Beauxbatons Academy and the men of Eastern Europe's Durmstang Institute. Harry is too young to submit his name to the competitor-selecting Triwizards cup, but the flaming chalice spits out his name along with champions for each of the three schools nonetheless.

Between the three challenges of the tournament, Harry, Ron and Hermione have to deal with something equally scary and difficult--the usual teen drama and trauma of young romance. Emma Watson has a great scene playing Hermione at the formal Yule ball, cursing thick-headed boys and nursing feet sore from her first high heels, while Ron (Rupert Grint) and Harry prove to be as utterly feckless as most 14-year-old boys when it comes to figuring out girls.

Arching over all this is the continuing saga of the battle between Lord Voldemort and the forces of good. Goblet of Fire gives the audience the longest look yet at the villain and how he became the scourge of humanity. An almost unrecognizable, noseless Ralph Fiennes slithers through the role with elegance and venom as Voldemort takes on physical form at last.

The first two hours of Goblet of Fire pass quickly, alternating for the most part between Harry's preparation for and participation in the various tournament challenges, with a few scenes of lovelorn teen angst and the classroom antics of the new professor of defense against the dark arts, Mad-Eye Moody (the hilariously gruff Brendan Gleeson) thrown in for good measure. The last 40 minutes are taken up with Harry's thrilling face-to-face fight with Voldemort and plenty of hard-to-follow dialogue explaining what has really been happening and setting up the next film in the series.

With the young stars of the film ageing faster than their screen counterparts, it is occasionally a bit difficult to buy the idea that the characters are only 14 years old. Of the three, Watson turns in the most credible performance. Radcliffe needs to learn to loosen up and do something other than project grim resolve, and while Grint shows some signs of talent for broad comedy, his endless over-the-top mugging can be a bit much at times.

While considerably darker and less bland than the first two entries in the Potter series, Goblet of Fire resembles them more than it does the excellent third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The movie opens Nov. 26.
(Nov. 28, 2005)

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