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I missed the boat on Harry Potter 3. In my review, I failed to pick up on the puberty metaphor that director Alfonso Cuarón brought to the project. While the more observant and insightful critics praised HP3 as being far superior to the previous outings, I simply said that one was basically as good as another and that the director was largely interchangeable. This time I’ll try to be more insightful.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is not directed by Cuarón, the Mexican director of lush and sexy movies. This time, the director is Mike Newell, director of funny, romantic, relationship movies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile, Pushing Tin).

Screenwriter Steve Kloves returns for the fourth time to adapt Rowling’s book for the big screen.

Yet Another Competition

Harry and Hermione face evil and 14-year-old hormones
Harry and Hermione face evil and 14-year-old hormones

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and pals head off to a world cup quidditch match, largely as an excuse to introduce us to some new characters (we don’t actually see the match, thank goodness, nor do we know who won).

The new characters are Cedric (Robert Pattinson), an older boy from Hogwart’s; Krum (Stanislav Ianevsky), a severe lug of a man from a Bulgarian school who seems better suited to wrestling than magic; and a skull/snake spirit-in-the-sky with a small army of minions in black KKK hoods — no doubt cohorts of the dark lord Voldemort.

The film’s story centers around (yet) another school competition. This time it’s the tri-wizard tournament. The “tri” comes from the tradition of inviting two other schools to participate along with Hogwart’s. One is an all-girls school, the other all boys. It’s also the school administrators’ hope that the students can broaden their horizons with friends outside of their usual circles (a grand idea, even for us muggles).

The Goblet of Fire is a special effect that chooses a champion from each school to participate in the tournament. And although Harry Potter is officially too young to participate, the goblet spits out his name as a contestant, no doubt the work of some dirty trickster.

Beyond the school competition, there is also a story about lord Voldemort’s increasing powers.

Boundaries

I said of the third film that the most interesting thing was just seeing these people grow up in front of our eyes. So once again, I wanted to check in on the characters, see what it’s like being 14, and maybe not worry so much about competitions, villains, and plot devices.

From that perspective, the movie seems to be about breaking rules. The most obvious example is that Harry is entered in the tournament, in spite of a rule against those under 17 participating. This is dispensed with in one of the movie’s worst lines of dialogue: “I’m afraid the rules are clear. The Goblet of Fire is a binding magical contract.” In other words, the plot requires it, so Harry will stay in the competition.

Then again, maybe that line is a counterpoint to Harry’s own discovery of coloring outside the lines. The adults are very willing to be bound by (and teach) conventions, but Harry sees that the boundaries of school and rules are porous. He senses, perhaps, that the world is much bigger than walls of Hogwart’s.

In his first test in the competition, he summons his broomstick, which seems to be a gray area; the rules only allow the use of a wand. His newest teacher, Alastor Moody (Brendan Gleeson), seems to believe that it’s okay to break the rules now and then. Moody himself breaks a school rule against using shape-changing as punishment for students.

But it is also Moody who introduces his students to three rules that one must never break. They’re actually called the “three unforgivable curses”; they are specific spells which the young wizards must never use, but they also serve well as a basis for morality: no slavery, no torture, and no killing. Harry learns the lesson well. He will break the lesser rules of the school or the tournament to satisfy the more important rules of life.

Boys and Girls and Music

Our adolescent friends are also discovering that boys and girls are starting to diverge. The girls from the French academy of magic are very feminine. They wear silky blue dresses that Ron likes to watch, and they wear hats that look embarrassingly like a certain part of the female anatomy.

The boys, thankfully, don’t wear phallic hats or codpieces — I guess the quarterstaffs they carry are supposed to suffice. Instead, the idea of masculinity is presented as soviet militarism. Brownshirted, stern-faced, shaved-headed young men make a martial entrance. They speak rarely and carry big sticks.

But even as children grow and split into men and women, a bridge across the new gap is introduced. The three schools jointly attend a ball, with all the usual awkwardness, eagerness, and emotional pain that goes along with 14-year old hormones. Harry and Ron get jealous and fight, although neither seems to know for sure if they’re fighting over Hermione or each other.

I’m almost surprised there wasn’t more of that weird realization that first-year students keep getting younger and younger. It’s only hinted at once, when a little fan, about the size of Harry when we first met him, seeks Harry’s autograph.

A Good Long Look

But even if HP4 is as dense as all that, there are some bad scenes that are almost embarrassing. Every once in a while Newell throws in an odd little “joke” that stops the movie in its tracks in search of a quick laugh (Hagrid accidentally forks the band teacher in the hand, for example).

Also, Newell seems too easily impressed by magic and special effects — the trick that really wows Harry, right at the beginning, prompting him enthuse “I love magic!” is a simple, unimpressive trick. And the awe with which Newell films a Pegasus carriage and a computer-generated underwater sailing ship is disappointingly old-fashioned. Kids are far more sophisticated and less easily impressed by computer-generated cartoons than Newell seems to think.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is almost 2 hours and 40 minutes long, which is self-indulgent. Everyone I spoke to seems to agree it’s a little too long, although we disagreed on which particular scenes should have been cut. For those fans more interested in the story than the characters, the fancy-dress ball is probably wasted screen time, although it’s what sustained me through endless repetitions of “[item] of [arcane power]” and flourishes of special effects.

Still, for such a long movie, it seems to fly past pretty quickly, and it’s a must-see for fans, of course. So give HP4 a look and bring on HP5. Let’s see what it’s like to be 15.