On the presupposition that everyone who’s interested in seeing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has already read the book, I’m a little more liberal with the spoilers in this review than I am in most.
First, a disclaimer: I am not now, nor ever have been, afflicted with Pottermania. I liked the first novel okay and thought the third was pretty good, but have been less than enamored with the more recent entries in the series. I am not one to reflexively dismiss something as “kid’s stuff” (one of my all time favorite movies is The Iron Giant, after all), but I haven’t found Harry Potter to be especially engaging, either.
So in evaluating Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I am only interested in how it works as a film, and not in how faithfully it follows the book. Indeed, given that I disliked the corresponding novel (it was my least favorite in the series), the more the movie deviated from the text the better, in my opinion.
The good news is that it is evident, right from the get-go, that the screenplay is a considerable abridgement of the source material. The first 100 pages of the novel — devoted to the Quidditch World Cup, including lengthy descriptions of how the children travel to the site and an entire chapter on play-by-play commentary of the event — is packed into the first 20 minutes of the film. Unlike Rowling, screenwriter Steven Kloves seems intent on shuffling the kids off to school as quickly as possible: the Dursley’s don’t even make an appearance, and Dobby (along with the entire Elf Liberation subplot) is given the axe. By the time we arrive at Hogwarts, it seems like the filmmakers, against all odds, have figured out how streamline the 650 page book into a 150 minute movie.
The bad news is that Goblet of Fire (the book) contains so much superfluous material that, even after losing a huge chunk of it, Goblet of Fire (the film) feels too crowded by half. At one point they introduce a major character (Barty Crouch Junior) only to interrupt themselves halfway through to introduce a second major character (Mad Eye Moody), and then return to the original introduction once that is complete. Much of the first half of the film feels this way, with new people, spells, and concepts being revealed at a dizzying pace. At times it reminded me of those disclaimers tacked on to the end of a radio ads for contests, where they have digitally edited out all the spaces and left a monolith of information. Some characters (notably Cho Chang and Rita Skeeter) are given such a small amount of screen time that they serve only as reminders about the substantially larger roles they played in the book.
Once the Triwizard Tournament gets underway, though, the film not only finds its focus, but also takes a turn for the grim. When Radiohead made a surprise appearance halfway through I thought it odd to see them in a “kids movie,” but that was before I realized that the final hour pretty much plays out like a typical radiohead song: dark, brooding, and at times downright ponderous. Indeed, between the horror elements and the introduction of sexuality to the franchise (we’re treated to French schoolgirls in short skirts and a shirtless Daniel Radcliffe cavorting in a sauna with a voyeuristic female ghost), Goblet of Fire isn’t really a kids movie at all. The age range for the audience seems to be shifting right along with the age range of the protagonists. The final film in the series may well be NC-17.
I was pretty ambivalent about Goblet of Fire. On the one hand, I like the darker elements (the introduction of Azkaban in the third book is why it was my favorite), but I came away from the film feeling much the same way as I did from the book, that Rowling is exceptionally skilled at coming up with clever ideas (or at least at lifting them from other works and reworking them until they seem passibly original), but isn’t so good at cobbling them together into a coherent storyline. So much of the Triwizard Tournament doesn’t makes sense (even in a world where magic is real and dragons are imported from Romania), and it makes even less so in a film where so much exposition had to be abbreviated to keep the running time under a fortnight. Still, Goblet of Fire is certainly the best of the Harry Potter movies, so if you’ve liked the series so far and you can suspend your disbelief a little more than I was able, you’ll probably find it to be right up your alley, Diagon or otherwise.