New Harry Potter film doesn't suck

Well, the new HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE doesn't suck -- whch is saying a lot, when you consider that the series is basically a soulless Hollywood moneymaking franchise that has little to do with making great movies and everything to do with slavishly pleasing the fan base.

The first film in the series, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, was at best an adequate time-waster. Without an ounce of inspiration, the filmmakers slogged through the plot of the book with all the sterile professionalism that money can buy, treating a pop novel with the reverence that a PBS Masterpiece Theatre adaptation normally reserves for the literary works of Janes Austen or Herman Melville. Nobody seemed to realize that simply FILMING THE BOOK doesn't qualify as great filmmaking; the film itself needs some kind of life of its own, some spark of inspiration that makes the story work in the new medium

The first sequel, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, made the leap from dull professionalism to outright awfulness in one single, easy step, creating a film almost without any redeeming qualities at all. It's the ultimate insider experience: "I'm a fan of the book; I wanted to see the book on the big screen; now it is and that's enough to please me." The rest of us (those who like good movies) were just left scratching our heads, wondering why anyone would waste their time on this junk.

Fortunately, things picked up with HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, the first film in the series that actually works as a film. The tone was a bit darker, and the reality of watching the cast grow up, while the characters wrestled with problems of advancing maturity, resulted in a worthwhile viewing experience.

GOBLET OF FIRE continues in the direction of PRISONER OF AZKABAN without really advancing very far. The darker tone remains; the cast is still getting older, and the characters are still awkwardly adapting to the fact that they are not children anymore and they live in a world that can be a dangerous place.

Director Mike Newell (whose best work has been in romantic comedies like ENCHANTED APRIL and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL) brings a nice, mature approach to the proceedings. One of the strengths of the Potter series has been that, despite the magical trappings, much of the setting seems grounded in reality: Sure, Hogwarts is a magical school that none of us have ever attended, yet we recognize the inter-class rivalries and pecking orders, the pressure to excell, the fear of being in away from home and the comfort derived from having friends who sympathize with you. All of this plays to Newell's strengths, and he manages to make who sequences feel feel as if they carry some dramatic weight -- as if what's happening has actual consequences -- so that we identify with the characters and care about what's happening to them.

Unfortunately, the film succumbs to the problems that plagued its earlier predecessor, especially CHAMBER OF SECRETS: excess of computer-generated razzle that generated little genuine dazzle. From time to time, the film grinds to a halt to show off some new image that has all the beauty and all the dramatic sincerity of a Hallmark greeting card -- pretty, but unconvincing and unnecessary.

If this were the only problem, the film would merely be hampered in its pacing by the occasional need for the characters to stand around slack-jawed while looking off-screen at the tedious effects added in post-production. But there is a bigger problem afoot: bad story-telling, which takes the form of strained or non-existent continuity.

The film has several startling and exciting visual set pieces that set up the mood of danger underlying the events that unfold, but too often these scenes seem to exist almost in a vaccuum: they happen; the characters get alarmed; but then they go on about their business as if nothing had happened. The result undermines the allegedly darker tone of this episode: how sinister can things be, when no one seems much disturbed by them on screen?

In particular, the film starts with Harry's dream that the evil Valdemort is soon to make a comeback; this is quickly followed by an all-out attack on a gathering of magicians in a pastoral setting that quickly turns to a blasted landscape of destruction. So what does everyone do? They go on with their studies of course! They even go on with a Tri-Wizard tournament, the winner of which will earn a place of glory.

Say what? After being attacked, you think someone would be declaring a state of war and circling the wagons, not conducting a tournament. Harry has more dreams, but his superiors tell him not to obsess over them, even though they are clearly warning of things that will come to pass if no one does something to prevent them.

In the end, the characters' lack of initiative pays off for Valdemort, who is revived in all his ugly, evil glory. This takes place in a reasonably scary sequence (sort of like one of those resurrection scenes from the Hammer Dracula series, wherein the Count was brought back from the dead), which leads to a reasonably scary duel that not every character survives.

So what happens after this devastating development? Do the brazz at Hogwarts finally get a clue and take action? No, it's still business as usual: go home for summer, kids, and we'll see you next semester same as always. What a bunch of morons. They should be assembling the magical equivalent of a search-and-destroy team to go after Valdemort, not just sitting around and hoping for the best. But that would require telling a story that works logically in filmic terms, instead of slavishly sticking to the conceit that each installment portray one school term at Hogwarts. The film can't have its characters take any real action because that might threaten to bring the story to a climax on a much faster time table than the books are using. No, they're going to stretch the film series out to match the books, drama be damned.