A film review by Craig J. Koban
N O V E M B E R 1 9 , 2 0 0 5
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF
2005, PG-13, 157 mins.
Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe /
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson / Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint / Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
/ Alastor Moody: Brendan Gleeson / Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane
Question: Do great books necessarily make for great films?
The short answer to that simple question is – not necessarily.
I think that there have been wonderful films based on books – some of which I have read, many of which I have not – but to engage in debate about whether a film is a perfect adaptation of its literary source material is an exercise in unnecessary frivolity and redundancy. At face value, books and the cinema are two completely different forms of mass entertainment. One is primarily literary whereas the other is ostensibly visual. A novel allows itself to take time and develop its stories and characters to levels of precision and exactness that other mediums can't afford. Films are a different beast altogether. They can be complex both thematically and story-wise, but they need to be more succinct and expeditious with their content, otherwise you’ll lose the audience nine times out of ten. Clearly, debating whether a book that’s…say…732 pages would make for a great single film outing seems foolhardy at best.
Yet, many films seem to take great pains to appease the lovers of the books that they are attempting to adapt. Can you blame them really? However, perhaps the shortsightedness with this humble and noble approach is failing to look at whether or not a book would actually make for a satisfying two hour-plus entertainment. Furthermore, you can be absolutely faithful to the source material and rabid fan base, but what about the lay or agnostic filmgoer? Are they not just as important?
This, of course, brings me to HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, a film of scope, vision, and appeal, but one also that is too dense and long for its own good. I have had mixed feelings about this series since THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE opened back in 2001. That first film was decent enough, but with some clear rough edges that were smoothed out considerably with the arrival of its first sequel – THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS – in 2002. The third follow-up - last year’s THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN – was a decidedly darker and more streamlined Potter film (it still is the shortest film in the series) that, no doubt, could be attributed to its new director, Alfonso Cuarón. My basic trepidations with that film were not so much in terms of its look or tone (it refreshingly reinvented the overall mood of the Potter films) but more or less in its unavailing story and its propensity to continue on with the “Potter formula”. You know, the one that starts with Harry living with his verbally and physical abusive relatives; then a trip back to Hogwarts School; followed by him being reacquainted with old friends; the introduction of new faculty and finally with subsequent permutations of the story unfolding into a mystery that only Harry and the kids can solve. Let’s face it - THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN felt predicable and routine.
Now enter THE GOBLET OF FIRE, and I approached this film with a largely reserved and cautiously optimistic disposition. I remember ending my review of AZKABAN sincerely hoping that this new film would abandon its predilection for labored conventions, murky and overly plotted stories, underdeveloped antagonists, and an overall regurgitated feel. THE GOBLET OF FIRE sort of corrects some of my initial misgivings about the Potter series as of late. It at least tries to take the series in a decidedly more ominous and dark direction (this is a PG-13 film, a respectfully so – small kids should avoid this one), but the film continues to get bogged down under its own weight.
Again, this film looks sensational and is probably the most confident and stylish entry – visually at least – in the whole series. Yet, THE GOBLET OF FIRE buries itself in its own laborious running time, during which it inconsistently meanders around in search of an overall, appealing story arc. We get all of the wizardry and gravity defying special effects and scenes of awe and wonder that we have grown to expect from this franchise, but can we not be spared of yet another sub-par Hardy Boys-esque mystery that culminates in an awkward and stilted third act that bares more of a resemblance to an anti-climatic Scooby Doo episode? Doesn’t an adolescent boy have more to worry about than his parentage, villains from the past, and dark and disturbing mysteries to solve? I dunno...what about hair in weird places, facial acne, whether to trade in your Xbox for the new Xbox 360, or for that matter, members of the fairer sex?
I know…I know…these films are based on ridiculously beloved books, and a film could not in any way damage the integrity of those works…right? Unfortunately, it has been the undoing of some of these films to be slavish to the source material and this, in turn, diminishes their overall effectiveness. Much like the first two installments of the LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, a few of the Potter films seem to languish in being dedicated to their source books so sternly that they fail to tell tight and taut stories that work succinctly for the silver screen. What works on paper does not necessarily work for the cinema.
Fans of the books should start to understand that one can’t – in any way – make a faithful adaptation of these books. THE GOBLET OF FIRE is - by my Internet research - 732 pages long. It is the longest of the Potter books and its film version – at well over 2 and a half hours – feels as long as the book its based on. With some stronger editing, a willingness to part ways with a considerable amount of needless material, and a lot more focus on the spirit of the books and not the story, THE GOBLET OF FIRE could have been the lean and mean HARRY POTTER film that I have been waiting years for. Alas, it’s too overly scripted and lengthy to be satisfying. It is visually arresting, but dramatically flaccid and lacking in engagement. It sort of detached me enough to want to skip to the next film in the series. Films like this should not feel so disposable.
THE GOBLET OF FIRE at least starts off better than the previous films. We are spared this time from yet another completely redundant exposition with Harry and his cantankerous relatives (again, I must point out the obvious – why has social services never stepped in for poor ol’ Harry?) and instead gets into the story swiftly. We are briefly introduced to all of the returning regulars – all older, taller, but lacking in the awkward verbal squeakiness that preceded their adolescence the last time around. There’s Harry, of course (Daniel Radcliffe), his buddy Ron (Rupert Grant, far less whinny and less annoying than in the previous films) as well Hermione (Emma Watson), blossoming enough to make the other young male wizard’s feel strange stirrings in their magic wands (sorry, could not resist). The film starts with them being whisked away (literally) to the Quidditch World Cup that takes place in a vast stadium that looks far too much like the Senate Chambers in the STAR WARS PREQUELS, but never mind…it looks great.
These Cup finals are abruptly interrupted by the venomous Death Eater attacks, who all are there to destroy everything in their wake and to tell the wizard world that the evil Voldemort is coming back. After this the students return for another year at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry where they meet back up with the usual faculty – the old and wise Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), the gigantic Hagrid (Robbie Coltraine), and the Dark Arts teacher Snape (Alan Rickman). There are also some new professors, as is always the case with these films. There's the new opposition to the Dark Arts teacher, Moody (the delightfully wacky Brendan Gleeson). He’s an interesting chap, made up literally of spare mechanical parts. He has one robotic leg and a rather large false eye that has image enhancing and binocular abilities. Odd looking? Yes, but highly effective. There is also Madame Maxime, a giant of a woman that towers over even Hagrid himself.
It seems that in this school year there is to be the infamous TRI-WIZARD TOURNAMENT, a fantastic series of matches where champions from various schools compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup…er…I mean…for ultimate victory. We are introduced to three - Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy), and Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski). Yet, before you can say “magic”, Harry is thrown in as the wild card. Why is he a wild card? Maybe because of the fact that he has miraculously been included by some unknown person (to enter one must be 17; Harry is only 14). He seems nervous, as he should be. The tourney consists of deadly fights versus dragons and underwater creatures. Could there be a conspiracy that led Harry to mysteriously enter? Is Lord Voldemort up to it? Where is Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys when you need them? Again, as with the other films, THE GOBLET OF FIRE builds to a climax where the mystery is unveiled, the villain finally unveils himself, and only Harry can face the challenges alone.
I will not say more about the plot, other than to say that, yes, Potter does meet up with the vile and evil Voldemort. You may recall that we glimpsed him in THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE but now we see him in THE GOBLET OF FIRE in full force. To say that he’s a bit underdeveloped as an antagonist and is disappointing in execution and design is an understatement. Firstly, there is a genuine lack of imagination in his appearance (he looks like a half-man, half lizard creature) and the performance supplied by Ralph Fiennes is a letdown. He was so lecherously cruel and creepy as a serial killer in RED DRAGON, but here he seems to phone in his demonic portrayal of evil. As with last year’s Potter film, THE GOBLET OF FIRE demonstrates – again – that it does not seem to know how to have a truly interesting and worthy antagonist to populate its story. With only a few minutes of screen time at the end, Voldemort could have been used much better here.
There is much to admire in THE GOBLET OF FIRE. The film’s art direction and murky and cloudy cinematography are as sensational as ever. This film, despite its marathon-like running time, does have quite a bit of sustained action in it. Some of the set pieces are virtuoso special effects moments of marvel, as is the case where Harry battles with the dragon and the underwater skirmishes with some mighty p-o'ed mermaids from hell. This Potter film will please many who have felt that the other films lacked action and suspense. THE GOBLET OF FIRE succeeds in its one level of crafting sequences of tension, kinetic action, and awe-inspiring visual effects. The film also continues with a much more sombre and film noir aesthetic, which is invigorating in modest dosages. This is a Potter film more for the older, more mature audience member. Some of the new cast members are also fun to watch, especially Gleeson, who exudes a fiery tenacity and bravado. The three young main stars still feel, at times, stiff and mannered in their performances, but they are unquestionably likeable.
However, THE GOBLET OF FIRE misses the mark again on a story level. I fully realize that a compromise of sorts must be reached in making these films pacify the lovers of the books so they don’t leave the theatres and form mad, riotous mobs in the streets. On the other hand, this film stills lacks focus and a swift follow-through. THE GOBLET OF FIRE drags under its running time and it too often welcomes more boredom than involvement. A far shorter and better-paced film could have been made from this material. I am sure that a considerable amount of compression must have been required to get this book to the screen, but there still could have been room for additional tweaks and cuts here and there. Case in point is an extended subplot that starts up promising one thing and results in going nowhere.
There is a Yule Ball where the young male wizards must bring themselves to ask out another young female sorcerer. Harry seems to have eyes on Hermione, but so does Ron, in more reserved ways. However, she is going with a Tri-Wizard champion that looks disturbingly old enough to constitute an illegal relationship, so Harry asks the cute Cho Chang, who likes Harry a lot but is going with someone else. Obviously, Harry grows melancholy, Ron grows jealous because of Hermione’s choice of date, Harry sees how beautiful Hermione looks at the ball and grows lustful, and the adorable Cho Chang is not really referenced again in the story. Adding in all of these Brat Pact inspired moments of teen angst seem more attune in High School sex comedies, but here they seem out of place. Was there not a better way to develop the Potter-Hermione-Ron love triangle that does not drastically interrupt the flow of the overall story? I guess not.
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE was directed by Mike Newell, the original choice to helm the first Potter film. He gives the film warmth and humanity as well as a much-needed dosage of whimsicality and well-placed situational comedy, the latter that lightens the mood during the film’s more menacing surroundings. His direction gives some individual moments charm and fun, but he nevertheless has the difficult task of working within the confines of a lackluster script. Oddly and ironically, he is the first Brit to preside over the series, and it shows here and there. Most of the production team from the previous entries are also back, sans the great John Williams, whose replacement here for the film’s score – Patrick Doyle – fails to find the gravitas and majesty of Williams previous work. Williams' hauntingly beautiful themes and rousing score is sorely missed here.
HARRY POTTER films are the most difficult to critique. There are essentially critic-proof in the sense that lovers of the books will find ways to cherish them regardless of their faults. As for the rest of us outsiders, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE is a work where the sum of a few of its triumphant parts does not make for an entirely successful whole. The film has magic in a few key moments, but lacks inspiration and that sense of uplifting euphoria and wonderment that makes for the best of escapist fantasies. I don’t profess to be a Potter academic (I have never read any of Rowling’s books), so I review what I see here. There is undeniable skill and a consummate professional sheen to this film’s proceedings, but its narrative remains as prosaic and slumbering as ever. THE GOBLET OF FIRE is a wondrous work for the converted Potter audience member and an endurance test for the rest of us. It manages to lose track of its characters and story and fails to tell a tale that does the Potter character justice. Much like how I felt leaving the theatre after THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, I left this film feeling – more than ever – cautiously optimistic that a great Potter film still can be made. Here’s hoping for HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF PHOENIX in 2007.
Harry Potter and the PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of HARRY POTTER films:
1. HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) 1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STORE
HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STORE
3. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 (2011)
4. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
4. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
5. HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005) 1/2
6. HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE
6. HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)
7. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
8. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 (2010)