Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth film of the continuing saga of the education of wizard-in-training (and holy seeker in spite of himself) Harry Potter, cosmic battles between the forces of good and evil, and a loving portrait of wizardly student life with a heavy, British public school accent. Now Harry and his friends are about to encounter the challenges, even more wily than black magic, of puberty.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself mysteriously, and illegally, entered into the prestigious Triwizard Tournament, a fierce competition among Harry’s own Hogwarts school and two rival wizard schools, the all-female (and unmistakably French) Beauxbatons Academy and the all-male (menacing in a severely Star Wars-Spartan military way) Durmstrang Institute. Qualified potential competitors have placed their names, handwritten on a scrap of paper, into the ceremonial Goblet of Fire, and only one finalist from each school is chosen to compete. The inclusion of Harry is both peculiar and scandalous as he is underage and therefore disqualified, forbidden even to submit his name. Once Harry clears his name of scandal, the real intentions– an elaborate plot by shadowy forces to destroy him – become only too clear.
The basic plot, the preparation and execution of the Tournament, serves as a narrative frame upon which author Rowling and director Newell hang the breathtaking flights of imagination, of subplots, character portraits, the quirks of life at Hogwarts and Harry Potter’s moral education. Because Harry is a natural-born hero, his Herculean tasks test not only his mettle and his magical powers, but, more importantly, his ability to battle and conquer his inner demons. The only thing that could produce more apprehension for Harry than facing the treachery of the incarnation of absolute evil, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), is that universal coming-of-age ordeal, his first Yule Ball dance.
The first three films chart Harry’s friendship with fellow Hogwarts students, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a gifted, book-smart daughter of Muggles (non-wizards), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), son of a large family of eccentric, rustic wizards. This is contrasted to Harry’s unprovoked rivalry with Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), scion of a lineage of morally dubious, pure-blood wizards. In The Goblet of Fire Harry experiences his first serious rifts with his close and loyal companions – social rivalries and emergent romantic jealousies lead to misunderstandings and their first falling out. In comic counterpoint, groundskeeper, go-between and all-around trusted servant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Cotrane) finds romantic fulfillment in the similarly inclined head mistress of the Beauxbatons, Madame Olympe Maxime (Frances de la Tour). Questions of blood and social class purity take on ever darker tones, as complications by Malfoy pere and fils ensue for all.
Brendan Gleeson plays Professor "Mad-Eye" Moody, the notable eccentric of this story (which is saying a lot). Moody is the third replacement (a running joke in Harry Potter land) for Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, a hard-to-fill teaching position at the wizard school. (Kenneth Branagh, as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, and David Thewlis, as Professor Lupin, have held, and failed at, the post in previous school terms.) Miranda Richardson makes a guest appearance as Rita Skeeter, an annoyingly Madonna-like tabloid reporter, and does not steal every scene she shows up in so much as commits grand larceny.
Rowling’s epic follows in the generically north European pagan and vaguely Christian mystical traditions of her fantasy novelist predecessors (and models), J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (of the Narnia tales, respectively. Some of Rowling’s appeal derives from her clever, if simplifying, reworking of archetypes fundamental to Western civilization. Some lies as well in her gift as a masterful storyteller, ceaselessly and effortlessly tantalizing and satisfying her audience with what happens next. In this she rises to the level of the legendary Robert A. Heinlein. All of her appeal translates well into film, where the scope and vision of magical fantasy and spectacle unfold in full force.
While the mythic dimensions of the Hogwarts universe play out in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it is the sudden (and truly horrifying) death of one character, and what follows, that wrenches the viewer from the comfort of pure fantasy into the real-world dimension of unalterable consequences and ramifications. The four Harry Potter films (thus far) revel and repel in fairy-tale fantasy, but this fourth installment also achieves the marvelous, a fleeting moment that is truly sublime.