From the confection of director Christopher Columbus’s two Harry Potter films, to the disaster of Alfonso Cuaron’s and the warm good humor of Mike Newell’s, we have now come to the first installment in the series that can truly be said to be absorbing. The 900 page book has been whittled down to a marvelously transparent screenplay of turbulent emotional essences. Fans of the book may be upset by the missing plot points, but the soul is all there.
"What happened to the delight?" asks Roger Ebert, in his "thumbs down" review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix . And indeed, the tone of the film is set at the beginning, in smoke and ice, bad dreams, and the melancholy, lonely squeak of an empty merry-go-round. Death dogs the frame.
But Ebert, looking for what isn’t there, unfairly penalizes what is. In a unique series, where the young actors remain the same, they are not the same, but aging before our eyes; where the director’s chair continually rotates; what is it all about if not change? As the actors are coming into their power, so are the readers of the books; and change, even radical change, is exactly what is called for. As in any such war story, the warmth and cheer of peacetime is so important, because banked memories of those times have to be stored like fat to see you through a lean winter.
It isn’t so much that innocence is draining from the series as that the adults are stepping back. Now, Dumbledore, the headmaster, will not even acknowledge Harry, and the vacuum is torture. Watch how the children barrel down a hill to reunite with their friend Hagrid, and the desperation with which Harry embraces his mentor, Sirius Black, like a child of a broken marriage clinging to an unpredictable father. Even Harry’s best friends, Ron and Hermione, seem to him impossibly out of reach.
In Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers , a dying woman is at last suspended forever in the memory of a simple, perfect moment spent with the two sisters whom she loved. There is a moment like that in Order of the Phoenix . Harry is just hanging out with Hemione and Ron. For the first time in a long while, they relax, give each other a look, and allow themselves to laugh a little. In that one moment, you see the depth of trust between three characters, and three actors – Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Daniel Radcliffe – who have grown up together, and learned their craft, in a glass house. If they knew what they were in for at the beginning, would they have started? It’s a moment of such grace that, when invoked, it will finally break the most powerful of evil spells.
Of course I must not fail to mention that this is a film not so much about great evil as the lesser evils that attend it. Chief among these is Dolores Umbridge, Imelda Staunton of Vera Drake . As a teacher who becomes Hogwart’s Grand Inquisitor, she is the film’s horror in dirty pink. She is an authoritarian so complete and vile, she can paralyze a room even with her back turned. The dark delight she takes in straightening the pens on her desk gives a sense of her sexless sadism; her barking titter is the tipoff that she is actually quite insane. By contrast, when Harry comes out of his shell and begins to teach the students himself, the lesson finishes to spontaneous applause. That’s how children should be made to feel by the teachers in their lives.
Director Peter Yates doesn’t always handle the requisite computer graphic effects very well, but you get the sense he’s not interested in them, either. Compare his delicate rendering of Sirius’s face and voice in the hearth flames to an earlier version. It’s a lovely, wonder-filled thing. So is the movie.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.
Millions of kids and adults around the world are passionate about Harry Potter (including those who would censor the books without having read them). Fans overlook or forgive the fact that many of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy ideas are hackneyed. They love Rowling’s bustling plots, and her spry, conversational language. Most of all, they love her characters. They want to know what happens to their friends.
Since the fans are eager for any new words by Rowling, few complained that the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , was bloated. In adapting the book for the screen, writer Steve Cloves did what an editor should have done in the first place; he threw out most of the first hundred and fifty pages, and nixed or combined redundant scenes and unwelcome sub-plots Even so, the movie is too dense to affect you like it should. Will you shed a tear when a certain character dies?
The movie begins with the Quiddich World Cup, played in an arena that seats 100,000 wizards. Quiddich is a cross between rugby and cricket, played on broomsticks hovering fifty feet off the ground. The festivities are interrupted when someone casts the "Dark Mark," a floating skull in the sky. It’s a sign that the Dark Lord, Voldemort – still only a wizened homunculus at this point — has returned.
Voldemort’s servants, the KKK-like Death Eaters, could be anywhere and anyone. Harry gets a warning from his mentor, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), whose face appears in the coals of a fireplace. "The demons are within the walls, Harry," the likeness of Sirius intones. Which of the many character actors is a Death-Eater? You’ll probably figure it out, but it’s fun guessing, and Rowling’s mysteries always play fair.
The bulk of the film concerns the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a triathlon of magical tasks played between the three great wizarding schools. Harry’s name is selected by the Goblet of Fire, even though he’s too young. He will have to face a deadly Hungarian horn-tailed dragon cribbed from Harold Robbin’s Dragonslayer . (Hey, why not steal from the best?) The other two events will also test Harry’s courage and "moral fiber" – though the second event, which takes place underwater, is so muddy in its plotting that it will also test your ability to figure out what’s supposed to be going on.
Warner Brothers made a critical decision not to re-cast the young actors for each movie. As a result of this, and the tight eighteen-month production cycle, we get to watch the kids grow up on film. They are now fourteen. Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, has a voice a full octave lower than before, and he’s sort of soulful. Bookish Hermione, Emma Watson, has become a knockout with a high forehead and a sly half smile. Ron, the red-headed poor boy played by Rupert Grint, has developed shoulders and acting chops. Director Mike Newell, of Four Weddings and a Funeral , is the perfect choice to bring out the humor in their crushes and misunderstandings.
The movie is too long, and it’s rated PG-13 for an intense scene between Harry and Voldemort. But watching one of Rowling’s stories, brought to life by good actors and cool special effects by ILM, is like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Go, and enjoy yourself.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.