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Truly magical at last

With the fantasy kicked up a notch and a new director, Harry Potter catches 'Fire.'

November 18, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

IT'S taken them long enough, but the movies have finally gotten Harry Potter right. Despite the reported $2.7 billion earned by the series' three previous attempts, it's not until "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" that a film has successfully re-created the sense of stirring magical adventure and engaged, edge-of-your-seat excitement that has made the books such an international phenomenon.

Viewed as a whole, the Potter movies are shaping up to be a fascinating experiment in big-budget filmmaking. Using the same J.K. Rowling source material, the same screenwriter (the excellent Steve Kloves), largely the same cast but a variety of directors, the Potter pictures have ended up reflecting the sensibility of their filmmaker more than that of the author.

With the reliably commercial Chris Columbus in charge, the first two Potters were soulless but safe-as-houses copies of the books.

The gifted Alfonso Cuaron attempted to escape the bonds of the conventional in "The Prisoner of Azkaban" but succeeded only in part.

It has fallen to the veteran Mike Newell, eager, in his own words, "to break out of this goody-two-shoes feel," to make the first Harry Potter film to be wire-to-wire satisfying.

Newell is an impeccable craftsman with four decades of cinematic experience, a veteran less concerned with projecting a lofty auteur sensibility than giving the best of his films, from the chilling "Dance With a Stranger" to the comic "Four Weddings and a Funeral," what they need from a practical point of view.

The first thing the Hertfordshire-born Newell has added to the mix is a welcome sense of ownership of the book's setting. Having been a boarding school boy himself, Newell, the series' first British director, displays a comfort level with the world of Hogwarts that comes with knowing it in his bones.

Newell works equally well with the preexisting cast and the film's new British actors, principally a convincing Ralph Fiennes as the dread Lord Voldemort, a comic Miranda Richardson as weaselly journalist Rita Skeeter and, best of all, Brendan Gleeson as the irrepressible Mad-Eye Moody, the latest in Hogwarts' notably eccentric series of Defense Against the Dark Arts instructors.

The presence of Voldemort in the creepy-crawly flesh signals that this is the first Potter movie to have a PG-13 rating for "sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images." Fortunately, "Goblet" is not an R-rated movie trying to pass as something tamer but a genuine PG-13, pleasantly shivery but in no way savage or sadistic.

Newell also proves to be adept at bringing a feeling of page-turning propulsion to a grittier than usual narrative that, courtesy of one of the series' better plots, is rife with convincing jeopardy situations.

The danger starts at the Quidditch World Cup, where the festivities are marred by rioting by Voldemort's Death Eaters and the appearance of his Dark Mark in the sky.

That Quidditch match, the 422nd to be exact, is also the first tipoff as to how special "Goblet's" special effects are going to be. The enormous stadium where the match is held seems appropriately both in and out of this world, and it sets the stage for a series of magical moments -- including the magnificent Durmstrang sailing ship rising out of the lake and the dozen winged horses drawing the gigantic Beauxbatons carriage -- that are to come.

When Harry says "I love magic," we can see just what he's talking about.

The wizarding schools arriving by ship and coach have come to Hogwarts for the legendary Triwizard Tournament -- "eternal glory awaits the winner," promises headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) -- that is the spine of "Goblet's" plot and the excuse for considerable amounts of magic and excitement.

Through a series of unlikely events, Harry gets to participate in the tournament and has to contend with a trio of exceptionally daunting tasks. The young wizard has to perform heroically underwater, deal with a claustrophobic, mind-altering maze and evade a terrifying Hungarian Horntail dragon so realistic that the film's "No dragons were harmed in the making of this film" disclaimer in the closing credits seems more valid than tongue-in-cheek.

"Goblet of Fire" was the first Potter novel to weigh in at the whopping 600-page-plus length that has become standard, and though many events have been eliminated, including those always irritating house elves, "Goblet" the film is still longer than it should be at two hours and 34 minutes.

Ripe for cutting is the picture's weakest element, its exploration of the agonies of early teen dating and friendship. The film's heart simply is not in questions like how long Ron (Rupert Grint) and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) will stay mad at each other, and a little romantic awkwardness among 14-year-olds goes an awfully long way.

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