Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth installment in J.K. Rowling's beloved book series, is directed by Mike Newell, a mantle previously worn by American Chris Columbus, on the first and second films, and Mexican Alfonso Cuaron, on the third and best installment of the popular franchise.

The first British director to helm a “Harry Potter” picture, Newell found himself in the unenviable position of following the brilliant Cuaron. As I noted in my review of “Prisoner of Azkaban,” Cuaron is the only filmmaker thus far to endow “Harry Potter” with a personal vision that runs against the grain of the material, which resulted in a poignant and introspective movie that refused to slavishly adapt the book, as Columbus had done.

Following in the footsteps of Columbus, Newell has made an entertaining, if impersonal work that adapts with fidelity the book to the screen in acceptable but not particularly imaginable or inspired mode. The bew film proves that almost any director can make a decent “Harry Potter,” if he's supported by a reliable crew of craftsmen and designers and special effects machinery.

Along with following the gifted Cuaron, Newell faced other problems. The three protagonists of “Goblet of Fire” are no longer children. They are adolescents, and as such, they demonstrate the awkwardness and hormone-driven conduct that's integral to this painful transitional phase. Correspondently, the actors who play the roles are also in a difficult age, neither children nor young men/women.

For Newell, the essence of “Goblet of Fire” is a thriller, and what drives the plot is the anticipation of Harry's big encounter with evil. In actuality, though, his film is the most episodic of the four, unfolding as a series of set pieces, some more exciting than others, that depict adolescent rituals, or rites of passage, to use the anthropological term.

The film begins extremely well with a dark scene that turns out to be a recurrent nightmare of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). Beset by disturbing nightmares that leave his scar hurting more than usual, Harry is all too happy to escape his dreams and attend the Quidditch World Cup with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). However, something sinister ignites the air at the Quidditch campsite: The Dark Mark, the sign of the Evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It's conjured by his followers, the Death Eaters, who have not dared to appear in public since Voldemort was last seen 13 years ago, the night he had murdered Harry's parents.

Naturally, Harry longs to get back inside the safe walls of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) can protect him. But, alas, things are not what they used to be, and Dumbledore lacks the knowledge and authority he used to have, an element that reinforces the feeling that this “Harry Potter” is a quintessentially adolescent yarn in which youngsters need to mature and gain independence since they can't rely anymore on their elders for guidance.

Real plot kicks in when Dumbledfore announces that Hogwarts will host the Triwizard Tournament, one of the most exciting and dangerous of the wizarding community's magical competitions. According to the rules, one champion will be selected from each of the three largest and most prestigious schools to compete in a series of life-threatening tasks in pursuit of winning the coveted Triwizard Cup.

Newell stages well the introduction of the competing teams, the brooding boys of Bulgaria's Durmstrang Institute, and the parade of the elegant girls of the French Beauxbatons Academy, which the male students watch in awe and wonder since they have not really experienced the company of girls. From then on, the screen assumes the shape of a United Nations international conference, with a mixture of events, costumes, and accents. These scenes also signal a warning that the whole film might turn into a diffuse exposition of collective rituals and colorful ceremonies.

Tension prevails in the Great Hall, as all breathlessly await the selection of their champions. Ministry of Magic official Barty Crouch (Roger Lloyd Pack) and Dumbledore preside over a nicely lit candle ceremony, as the enchanted Goblet of Fire selects one student from each school for the competition. Amidst an impressive hail of sparks and flames, the cup names Durmstrang's Quidditch Bulgarian superstar Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski), followed by Beauxbatons' exquisite Gallic Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy), and finally, Hogwarts' popular golden boy, Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson).

But then, inexplicably, the Goblet spits out one final name, Harry Potter. At 14, Harry is three years too young to enter the grueling competition. Despite insisting that he didn't put his name in the Goblet, and that he really doesn't want to compete, the decision is binding. Suspicion and jealousy abound, when Ron holds that in his “fame-seeking,” Harry has tricked the cup into selecting him.

Two new characters add considerable color to the proceedings. First, there's muckraking journalist Rita Skeeter (a wonderful Miranda Richardson, dressed in hot pink and red), who fans the flames of the Harry Potter backlash with her outrageous gossip columns, snapping photos that show Harry in unflattering positions.

Even more eccentric is Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (Irish actor Brendan Gleeson), the new, flamboyant Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, who's asked by Dumbledore to keep his perceptive and literally magical eye on the teenage wizard. Mad-Eye Moody, the staff's latest loose cannon and the Hogwarts' Defense Against the Dark Ages teacher, is a legendary Auror, a dark wizard catcher credited with filling the Azkaban prison with Vodemort's followers. But years of fighting evil on the front lines have taken their toll. Battle-scarred and paranoid, Moody relies on his magical, all-seeing blue eye to help him thwart the lurking evil. Gleeson plays him with an elemental quality that's part savagery and part wide-eyed innocence. Moody's piercing blue mechanical eye, which becomes a character in itself, is impressively created by special effects supervisors Nick Dudman and Jimmy Mitchell.

Space doesn't permit me to dwell on all the adventures. But we get to see Harry's preparations for the challenging Triwizard tasks, which include evading a fire-breathing dragon, diving into a lake, and navigating a maze with a life of its own. Taking his time, Newell portrays the risky adventures in great detail. Young children may find the sequences of fantasy violence truly frightening, which may explain this installment's PG-13 rating.

Some humor is introduced in the lengthy Yule Ball sequence, which, ironically, is treated by the boys as their most daunting and terrifying challenge. For Harry, dealing with dragons, merpeople, and grindylows is a walk in the park compared to asking Cho Chang (Katie Leung), the lovely girl he's attracted to, to the Yule Ball. The already jealous Ron has another reason to be insecure, when Hermione goes out with the Bulgarian champ. If he were not so distracted, Ron might have acknowledged a change of feelings for Hermione.

As if to justify its PG-13, the film makes the youngsters face death, when someone is murdered on Hogwarts grounds. And in the last reel, the whole movie takes an ominous turn, when Harry, still haunted by dreams of Voldemort, needs to confront head-on evil without any guidance. As Harry and the other contestants battle through their last task and the advancing tendrils of the ominous maze, Voldemoret keeps a watchful eye. Harry's encounter with True Evil is now inevitable, representing the ultimate test of courage and passage into young manhood.

One of the central and exciting set pieces is the Living Labyrinth. Dumbledore cautions the champions not to lose themselves within the endless, creepy labyrinth that seems to have a sinister agenda of its own. The contestants explore with trepidation the biggest, most malevolent maze imaginable, which makes all those who enter doubt their sanity.

Harry and his fellow students are transfixed when Durmstrang's masculine young men sweep into the Hogwarts halls. And when the exquisite Beauxbatons girls arrive, the boys are in a state of shock. The girls ooze femininity and render the boys, Ron in particular, speechless.

That this “Goblet of Fire” is more episodic and uneven than the previous installments might be a result of the source material; the book's 800 plus pages had to be trimmed down to a manageable script. Watching this chapter is like spending a day in a huge amusement park, in which the playground offers attractions that vary in risk and excitement.

Quite understandably, the rituals are carefully gender-balanced so that they appeal to both male and female viewers. Level of excitement ranges from the risky and scary Triwizard Tournament to the humor and heartbreak of the Yule Ball, in which the shy boys are forced to choose partners and to dance.

One of Rowling's unique talents is her inventive ability to up the ante of the books' embodiment of evil. Voldemort is a much more frightening villain than all his counterparts in the previous installments. Newell is good at capturing Voldemort's unexpected mood swings, from explosive rage to quieter and even pleasant moments. Fiennes is incredibly scary, precisely because he plays him with charm; you can see the madness in his eyes and the way his handsome face has been messed up beyond recognition.

Having directed some good romantic comedies (“Enchanted April,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), Newell brings out the humor and awkwardness of adolescent courtship and romance, and a more realistic sense of anarchy about boarding school life, having attended such a school himself.

Nonetheless, in “Goblet of Fire,” the magic and innocence of childhood, and the actors who play children, are gone. In their place, we get the more typical problems of adolescence: deep-seated insecurity, identity struggle between the id, ego, and superego (to use Freud), sexual jealousy, and romantic shyness.

To the dismay of conservative parents, Harry and his cohorts have become more modern, conventional, and less uniquely British heroes. Indeed, they seem more comfortable wearing jeans than formal uniform, prefer disco and rock to classic waltz, and would rather avoid such specifically British rituals as afternoon tea and sandwiches.