The Harry Potter films occupy a peculiar place in cinematic lore. It is quite rare for a wildly successful film series (which Harry Potter undoubtedly is, in terms of box office receipts and fan base) to not eclipse or even enhance its source material. As revered as Mario Puzo's Godfather, Ian Fleming's James Bond, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series were, their silver screen renderings became, in our cultural mind's eye, the definitive incarnation of each work.
On the other hand, Harry Potter remains, first and foremost, a book series, with the films serving as little more than companion pieces. For the fourth entry, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mike Newell assumes the directorial reins, the first Brit to do so. The familiar chord of pre-release hosannas has already struck--it's a more mature film; it's a darker film; it's a better looking film; etc.
In reality, the term "comfortable" is the best way to describe Goblet of Fire--at times like a warm bath, at others like an old, worn shoe. Newell fashions an impressive visual landscape, but there is only so much of the rote of secret passageways, magic spells and flying broomsticks one can take before asking if there is something else, something more substantial. Ultimately, what continues to hamstring the Harry Potter scripts is an inability (or willingness) to separate the dramatic wheat in J.K. Rowling's text from the prosaic chaff.
The film is set against the backdrop of an underage Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe, better than given credit) mysterious inclusion in the daunting Triwizard tournament. Newell ratchets up the hormonal tensions among the now teenage protagonists, most notably when the Hogwarts student body must partner up for a school prom. Even this allowance for real-life teen angst feels clunky and incongruous with the rest of the story as it quickly devolves into a WB television episode.
Steve Kloves, Rowling's handpicked scriptwriter for all the films, again churns out a storyline steeped in familiarity and plodding with inevitability. Even the much ballyhooed resurrection of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, in full Red Dragon mode) plays more like dinner theater than a pivotal touchstone.
"Everything is going to change now, isn't it?" Hermione wonders as the 157-minute film mercifully fades to black. One can only hope.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire opens nationally Friday.