It was always possible that despite Chris Columbus’ missteps in the opening films of the “Harry Potter” series, greatness in magical filmmaking could be achieved. The cobwebs draped over the chandeliers in Gringotts Bank in “Sorcerer’s Stone” didn’t have that proper sense of whimsy, merely placed there because a film had to be made as quick as possible. Otherwise, what good is a tentpole picture without buzz? End of the line and end of discussion. However, I don’t blame it entirely on production design. Certainly the films were clunky, moving like a giant with stomach problems. Where was the utter magic of the books? It wasn’t such a problem that certain sequences were excised for time. In any book being adapted to the screen, some scenes are let go. But here, in a world that deserved everything it could possibly have, it didn’t have much of anything.
Alfonso Cuaron got it with “The Prisoner of Azkaban”, imbuing that shaky world with the magic it richly deserved. Passion. Eyes wide open to more than just literary possibilities translated to the screen. He added a few more beats, with Emma Thompson enjoying herself as the Professor of Divination, and the triple-decker bus which seemed to appear exactly as J.K. Rowling wrote it, exciting and awe-inspiring at the same time. He also knew that it was time to settle down with these characters, that indeed, dark times were ahead and while there was a time for magic, there was also a time for proper character development. In order for these characters to grow up, the franchise needed to as well, and it’s what makes the Potter series terrific fodder for studying the styles of directors.
Because of Cuaron, there now seems to be more mature undertakings for the rest of the days of this series. Undoubtedly, Mike Newell could not have raised the bar to PG-13 without him. Here, and because of the length of the book no doubt, “Goblet of Fire” is streamlined to include only the most pertinent parts of the book, with Steve Kloves’ screenplay impressively bounding us from place to place, from the staggering views of the massive stadium for the Quidditch World Cup, the subsequent dangers put forth by the Death Eaters, and of course, the arrival of other wizarding schools at Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament, a prestigious competition which allows either “eternal glory,” according to Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, less the meditative being that the late Richard Harris was, and more involved, knowing, and understanding of the goings-on at Hogwarts and certainly in this tournament, and in Harry’s life, as always), or death to those unfortunates who could turn a wrong way or end up in the darkest of graveyards. Plus, the Hungarian Horntail dragon that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) faces in the first task is downright nastier than could ever be imagined by reading the book. Two streams of flames emitting from the dragon’s mouth are quite unsettling, rare suspense in these movies.
For Harry, he never expected or wanted to be involved in the Triwizard Tournament, but his name shoots out of the flames of the oversized chalice and he reluctantly joins Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) of the Beaubaxton school, Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) of Durmstrang, and Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), also of Hogwarts for a competition which also includes the most surprising and imaginative sequence to come out of the Potter films in years, with unpleasant mercreatures, in the gloomy green-tinted Black Lake. It also allows for more magic, with gillyweed, which Harry ingests and grows gills, webbed hands, and flipper feet suitable for that underwater competition.
Other impressive sequences come by way of the production design by Stuart Craig, transforming the Great Hall into an icy palace for the Yule Ball, and new and returning actors who make even more of who their characters once were. Alan Rickman appears sporadically (though he has another scene in the additional scenes on the second disc of this set), having a great time clocking Harry and Ron on the back of their heads with a book to keep them silent during study hall, one of Mike Newell’s major contributions, as he grew up in the British school system. Considering that Snape was merely dark and unpleasant toward his students, this is indeed a surprise which allows Rickman the bridge to finally explore new sadistic depths of Snape in the next three movies. Maggie Smith, unfortunately underused, makes the most of her major scene in teaching the students how to dance in preparation for the Yule Ball, leading a humiliated Ron (Rupert Grint) around the room. It’s that teenaged uncertainty which also lends a lot of amusement. The golden egg Harry retrieves from the first task, which contains the clue to the next task, puzzles Harry. When he opens it, it only emits a steady, loud shrieking noise. Cedric, in gratitude to Harry for letting him know about the dragons, suggests that he takes a hot bath in the Prefects Bathroom, so it might be easier to figure out how to learn the clue. In that bath, which has more spigots than any design you’ve ever seen, Harry sits in the massive tub, trying to figure it out, when Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson) glides down from the ceiling, slyly trying to peek at Harry’s other parts, telling him where the egg should be so he can understand the clue. It’s the most nervous and funny sequence between a ghost and a teenaged boy, with the exceptional Henderson making more than the most out of her few moments. Miranda Richardson is also featured as the gossipy reporter Rita Skeeter, and with her performance as well, you’d think it was the A-film for all honor-worthy British and Scottish actors to appear. John Cleese appeared in previous Potter films as Nearly Headless Nick, and Imelda Staunton has been cast as Dolores Umbridge in “Order of the Phoenix” (Originally, while reading the book, Joan Plowright sounded fine for the part, if she could exude ice in her veins and a blackened heart, but I suppose not), so Judi Dench and other famous faces should have a part somewhere in the movie adaptations of “Half-Blood Prince” and the upcoming seventh book.
Ralph Fiennes is the biggest revelation of “Goblet of Fire”, appearing nearly in human form as Lord Voldemort. As a fan of John Malkovich, my heart gladdened at the supposed rumor that he would take the role, and then sank when it didn’t happen. But Fiennes has it. He has the darkened nature of Voldemort. Fiennes’ familiar eyes aren’t noticeable at first because of the detailed makeup, and he disappears into the anger, the twisted mind, and the never-ceasing desire to kill Harry Potter. In the earlier hours of “Goblet of Fire”, the PG-13 seems moot because what’s here that hasn’t been seen in other movies? But in that graveyard sequence, the reasons are clear. For younger kids, it’s always a decision up to the parents, but those ardent Potter fans shouldn’t miss this and it’s likely they haven’t. For us, the best has finally happened. The series is now being treated as it should be, with the right mix of magic, danger, and drama, without watering anything down just so a younger audience can be snagged. Director David Yates, in charge of “Order of the Phoenix”, is now under the most pressure because of the genuine satisfaction over what Cuaron and Newell have done. But he is also at the greatest advantage because hopefully, by producer David Heyman’s efforts, he is now free to make the series even more foreboding, more suspenseful, with the same entertainment expected, but with more at stake. While the first two Potter movies aren’t easily forgotten because they formed the franchise, Chris Columbus should not return as director for the remaining films. Cuaron and Newell were the people to take it all even further. The level of artistry should remain high.
The same is true of this two-disc set, which hoists the hope that when special editions are made of each movie (rumored to include audio commentaries as the proposed audio commentary by Mike Newell for this release was scrapped), they will be just as much high-quality as this set proves. Since only the movie is on the first disc, all the big stuff is on the second one. Disney and other companies that put games on their DVDs with narrators that speak to kids in a goofy-soothing-stomach-turning fashion should learn from Warner Bros., as the voiceover for all four games (mimicking the tasks and the climax from the film) really gets into each one without stooping to easier speech, only a small part of what makes the games enjoyable. You won’t find a prize at the end, no hidden interview with J.K. Rowling (who doesn’t appear anywhere in the interviews, presumably because book-writing was more crucial), but the games themselves are most involving and even challenging as it takes time to learn the controls, such as pushing a certain arrow on a DVD player remote when it’s highlighted on the screen. And in the case of the dragon task and underwater task, you’ve got to watch for the arrow that stands out. On each section of the map, in the dragon arena, the maze, the lake and Hogwarts Castle, interviews, on-set footage and even moments in various dressing rooms can be found. The best of this is “Meet the Champions” in the dragon arena section, which chronicles a day at Leavesden Studios, where many sequences are being shot, requiring the services of those not associated with Hogwarts, with a small cameo from Emma Watson, talking to Stanislav Ianevski, Viktor Krum in the movie. Clémence Poésy is playfully sarcastic about spending a few hours filming scenes of her and the other Beaubaxton girls walking, and even some of the downtime between scenes is shown. Other interviews cover the major special effects sequences, preparations and filming of the Yule Ball, and even screenwriter Richard Curtis gets in the act, hosting a half-hour interview session with the three stars of Harry Potter. So with the movie, there’s excitement, fun, and immense storytelling through Mike Newell’s efforts and on the other hand, the quiet strategy of Curtis to just ask the briefest of questions and let the rest of the time be taken by Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson.
There has always been continuous, excellent quality with the Harry Potter DVDs, and just like the movie it contains, the “Goblet of Fire” DVD keeps to the same standards. When the day comes, if the day comes for Warner Bros. to double-dip on these movies, there will surely be a lot more worth watching and exploring. Now, the only way for this entire franchise to go is up, way up!