Spoilers Ahead

The holiday movie season officially kicks off with the release of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the film that will undoubtedly prove to be the 9000-lb. gorilla of the box office. That is, until Peter Jackson’s actual 9000-lb. gorilla makes its appearance next month.

The film opens innocuously enough, at the Quidditch World Cup (which is, incidentally, the only time you’ll probably ever see Ireland or Bulgaria in one), but the festivities are abruptly interrupted by the appearance of the sinister Death Eaters, followers of Lord Voldemort. They cause a good deal of general mayhem – though probably no more than you’d find at any other World Cup – including casting the Dark Mark of Voldemort over the proceedings, apparently to herald his imminent return.

Afterwards, the action returns to a familiar setting. It’s the fourth year of study for our intrepid trio of young wizards at Hogwarts, with the added bonus this year being the school’s hosting of the TriWizard Tournament. Three wizards, one each from the participating schools (Hogwarts, the all-girls’ Beauxbatons, and the Slavic Durmstrang) will compete for fame and eternal glory, etc. etc. In spite of his age, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is selected to be the 4th participant through a glitch in the selection process that no one can adequately explain, and the rest of the movie takes place around the tournament’s big three events. Old characters like Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Snape (Alan Rickman) are back, and we’re also introduced to Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson), the Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor du jour, Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), golden boy student of Hogwarts, and Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), the wizard world’s Liz Smith.

Director Mike Newell has some big shoes to fill. The third installment in the Potter franchise, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” was the best of the lot, thanks largely to the book’s darker subject matter and director Alfonso Cuarón’s touch. Cuarón roughed the kids up and raised the stakes of their adventures, and when Newell was named to helm the next film, there was some trepidation as to whether or not the director of “Mona Lisa Smile” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” had it in him to keep the ball rolling.

The good news is Newell (who also directed “Donnie Brasco”) ups the ante even more. “Goblet of Fire” is the darkest of the Potter movies to date. Lives are lost, sinister plots are revealed, and all of the principals succumb to the various horrors of adolescence. Gone are Chris Columbus’ interminable scenes of the kids standing around gape-mouthed at all the Really Cool S**t on display. With the extraordinary now treated as matter-of-fact, we can finally get down to business.

Fortunately, the performances have matured along with the kids. Radcliffe has really come into his own, and Emma Watson continues to dial back her acting. They’re not going to win any awards, but they’re also no longer totally outclassed by the likes of Gambon, Gleeson, and Smith, as they were in the first films. And the real news this time around is Gleeson, whose “Mad-Eye” Moody is the series’ most engaging character yet.

As for all the talk about Newell finally having Potter and company act like actual adolescents, not quite. There are moments of teenage petulance and jealousy, and the groundwork is laid for future romantic conflicts, but nothing that compares with what you’d find in a normal high school. Most parents would be weeping tears of gratitude to have teens as well-behaved and polite as these.

Due to the size of the book (over 700 pages), certain plot lines were reportedly left out, and others shifted around. Even so, the film’s quick pace and near-constant action carries you along quite nicely, and by the time Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) makes his climactic appearance, one can’t help but look forward to the remaining films.

Then again, there should be some real concern that, unlike American child actors, these British kids actually seem to age. J.K. Rowling and company better get the rest of these books out and adapted or Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is going to be 6’4” with muttonchops by the final film.

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