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Friday, Dec. 2, 2005

Ablaze with abracadabra

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Mike Newell
Running time: 157 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the latest installment in The Franchise That Dare not Come to a Conclusion, sees the boy wizard enter his teens, and the result is a movie that feels very much like many other teen flicks, albeit one with magic wands and portals to other dimensions.

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It's a rather bizarre blend; one minute Harry's flying about on a broomstick trying to avoid being roasted by a fire-breathing dragon, the next he's trying to work up the courage to ask a girl to the Hogwart's prom. Harry is socially ostracized at school, his friend Ron Weasly is having a hissy fit, and he even experiments with drugs. (Well, potions pilfered from the lab of Professor Severus Snape.)

About the only teen-movie cliche missing here is Harry getting a pimple, and you wonder why they didn't get John Hughes ("Pretty In Pink," etc.) to direct this. The man they did choose to helm "Goblet of Fire" -- after two safe installments by Christopher Columbus and a far darker chapter three by Alfonso Cuaron -- is director Mike Newell, not exactly known for fantasy (unless you count the match-up of Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" as such). He is English, though, and that must count for something in this series, especially when it comes to difficult cultural specifics like making sure Ron says "bloody hell" every time he's on screen.

"The Goblet of Fire" opens for once, not with Harry's "muggle" foster family, but with a very eerie dream of a snake winding past the tomb of Tom Riddle. (And if you're lost already, go back and rent "Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban.") Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is awakened by his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and soon they're off on a merry trip through a vortex to what looks like an arcane version of Glastonbury Festival.

It turns out to be the 422nd World Cup of Quidditch, and it's being held in an arena that -- in the first of several needlessly overdone effects -- would put Tokyo Dome to shame. You stop to wonder who had the time to build this monstrosity, what with the Dark Lord bent on returning and all. It's a thought that grows when a group of Ku Klux Klan-looking "Death Eaters" arrive to shock and awe the festival's tent city, raining fire and destruction on its attendees, who flee in panic.

You think there'd be a lesson there, but no, as soon as Harry's back at Hogwarts -- the otherworldly public school for aspiring wizards -- all thoughts turn to the "Tri-Wizard Tournament," a magical contest, i.e. more sports for wizards. Contestants enter the contest by writing their names on a piece of paper and throwing it into a magical goblet; Harry's too young to take part, but somehow his name gets in there anyway -- with a billowing cloud of smoke that seems suspicious to everyone except headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

The contest is quite dangerous, with the aforementioned dragons, an underwater trek in a lake of jellyfish-like creatures, and a maze of deadly shrubbery. Really, you think they'd be a little bit less casual about risking the life of Harry, who is, after all, the only person to survive the killing curse of evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, who appears late in the film.)

The joker in the deck, as usual, is a new Professor in Defense Against the Dark Arts. His name is Alastor "MadEye" Moody and he's played with maniacal glee by Brendan Gleeson. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) makes a brief appearance, with his face emerging out of the embers of a fireplace -- one of the film's better special effects.

Rather annoying is the addition of the gossip columnist for The Daily Prophet, Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), who conducts an obnoxious interview with Harry -- it's a bit too contemporary for a film series that's aiming for a timeless feel, as is the constant boys' refrain of "wicked." (But what will really date this film is the rock band that plays at the Hogwarts prom.)

Time passes pleasantly enough while watching this latest "Potter" film, and fans no doubt will love it from snakey beginning to winged-horse end. But for the first time the series feels like it's running in place. The dynamic between Hermione, Ron and Harry -- and one could add the nasty Draco Malfoy as well -- so central to the earlier films, gets short shrift here, lost in a plethora of new characters and subplots. The entire Tri-Wizard Tournament, meanwhile, seems like a two-hour "MacGuffin" to set up Harry's confrontation with his nemesis Voldemort. The plotting is sloppy -- would those in touch with the supernatural on a daily basis so readily ignore recurring dreams? -- but given the 734-page length of J.K. Rowling's book, it's still surprising they managed to fit it all into one film. And for those who are dying to know, when Voldemort finally corners Potter he does not say, "I am your father, Harry."

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