Harry Potter's 'Goblet' Gets Better On Screen

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Growing up in character: Daniel Radcliffe in the title role of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

The children of Harry Potter — the readers of his books, the viewers of his movies — are growing up with him. Many, perhaps millions of them were six or eight when the first wallop of Harrymania struck the U.S. in the summer of 1999. They are tweeners or a little older now, within cracking-voice shouting distance of the young wizard’s 16 years — in the sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince, published this summer — or 14 years, his age in the new movie version of the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Kids pick up a thing or two as they grow up; they may have learned a bit from the J.K. Rowling books and the films. The tone of the first two movies, The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and The Chamber of Secrets (2002), may have appealed to a fascination with the capricious machinery of meta-natural laws at Hogwarts school. The movies’ spookiness was a Halloween trick (or, if they liked it, treat) — the equivalent of a mischievous uncle shouting Boo! on the other side of the door. Just what you’d expect from director Chris Columbus, whose notion of childhood stretches from funny-scary (he directed Home Alone) to scary-funny (he scripted the evil-kids-on-the-rampage Gremlins).

As the Potter sagas proceed through the canon, they have turned darker, more fraught; and the older, wiser kids can sense the difference like a sepulchral chill in their bones. They know the change is not from a child’s reality to a adolescent’s nightmares, but from daydreams to the convulsive world of adolescence. Maturity is realizing that the thing we fear most is not what haunts us in our sleep, but what we awake to.

Everybody reading this is familiar with the outlines of the Goblet plot — Hogwarts’ hosting of a Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which Harry is mysteriously chosen as a fourth contestant — so we’ll cut quickly through the maze and say that this is the first Potter film to improve on the book.

One reason is that this was the first episode in Rowling’s series to feel too long; I suspect that the unique popularity of the earlier novels had intimidated her editors and petrified their blue pencils. Whatever the reason, Goblet consumed 734 pages, more than the length of the first two books combined. It was a challenge for kids not just to read the book but to lift it. (Isometric exercises for fifth graders?) Rowling took the first 100 pages to describe just two main scenes: a fleeting glimpse of arch-villain Voldemort and his abettors, and the Quidditch World Cup, disrupted by V’s shrouded hooligans.

The story continues at this languid pace, which could frustrate even hard-core admirers. I could name two, and will. A while back I read the first three books aloud at bedtime to a young female of my acquaintance, and we sailed through them in a month. But no resolve could keep her awake through Goblet. That was six years ago, and she didn’t know how the story came out until she saw the film last week.

The Goblet movie gets bustling straight off; those two scenes are dramatized (nicely) and dispensed with in 15-20 minutes. The movie is dense — every millimeter of screen space is art-directed up the wazoo — but not congested, Terry Gilliam-style. Each of the thousand elements knows its place: in the background, ceding eye-focus to the story and its increasingly plausible and compelling characters.

Columbus helmed the first two Potter chapters, and Alfonso Cuaron did wonders with Book Three, The Prisoner of Azkaban. This time, Producer John Heyman and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who have worked on the whole series, handed the job to Mike Newell, a Brit who has directed a few good, tense melodramas (Dance With a Stranger, Donnie Brasco) and some engaging sentimental fare (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral), as well as the ninth-worst movie ever made (his last one, Mona Lisa Smile).

What does a new director do on a sustained enterprise like the Potter films (or the James Bonds)? My guess is that, while the series’ more or less permanent team keeps the furniture moving, so to speak, the man-for-hire attends to the film’s pace and the care and feeding of the actors. Newell did an exemplary job here, encouraging and eliciting a community of performance.

Daniel Radcliffe is coming along nicely as the young hero, though it’s up for grabs whether the teen actor will have the chest hair to face the horrors in store for Harry. I’m getting quite fond of Emma Watson as Harry’s pal Hermione. Only Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley, the whiny ginger kid who represents the working class at Hogwarts, tries my patience. The film’s one unneeded plot strand concerns an estrangement between Ron and Harry. Why bother sundering them when we know they’ll get back together?

In his second session replacing the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts principal Dumbledore, Michael Gambon has a ponderous, aristocratic humanism. Gary Oldman’s Sirius, the human-canine from the third film, has a bright cameo as a face in the fireplace. The movie strikes black gold with Alistair “Mad-Eye” Moody, Hogwarts’ new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Played by Brendan Gleeson with a swagger and spume not seen since Robert Newton’s Long John Silver (another charming dastard), Mad-Eye has a globular left orb that stares skeptically, maniacally, at all it surveys. He seems both amiable and deranged, as when he gestures to a steamer trunk whose contents are frantically rattling and says, “I won’t even tell you what’s in there.” (We’ll find out later.)

Gleeson commandeers acting honors until the very late arrival of Ralph Fiennes as You Know Who ... He Who Must Not Be Named ... The Noseless Wonder ... Voldemort! The Tri-Wizard games that expertly filled most of the film’s time vanish from our minds when His Satanic Majesty appears to retrieve Harry for his purposes. “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” the boy-king asks later. It will. It has. In the Potter movie series, for the better.

This first Harry Potter film clocked in at a logorrheic 2hr33, nearly twice the length of a Disney cartoon feature. If The Sorcerer’s Stone has any merit, it was to demonstrate the elasticity of children’s attention spans; it proved that kids could sit still, enrapt, for ages. Goblet of Fire, which is not just an efficient babysitter but a wizard of a movie, will prove that adults can, too.