01/01/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Harry Potter's fourth outing has enough stylistic changes to keep the series interesting, discovers Mark. There is a new style with fewer sports, less frivolous humour, and a little more darkness. There is even a little romance as Harry, his friends, and the series matures.
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
It is a remarkable thing to watch the maturing process, to see a child become an adult. Cinema has shown many characters go from children to adults, but few have been able to look at the actual maturing process since it is difficult to capture gradual aging over years in a live-action film. Probably the best attempt at this is Michael Apted's 7-UP series. But the Harry Potter series shows us a character who matures before our eyes and whom we see at intervals of a year or two. And as the character matures, so does the style of the series.
The Andy Hardy films shows Mickey Rooney at several different ages, but the studio was obviously trying to keep the character very much the same from one film to the next. Harry Potter has no such restriction. Followers of the series will find a more mature Harry and a more mature style, less sugary but not actually drier than the previous films.
Mike Newell dispenses with some of the cuteness of the previous outings. There is no John Cleese playing funny ghosts and no stairways shifting under characters. Paintings still seem to be alive and move. This is one cute touch still there--and time so does a stained glass window--but otherwise the film very much seems to stick with its major characters and the plot, not cute trimmings. For once Quiddich does not sap too much of the screen time. Harry does not even play. Nor do Muggles come into the film much.
The film does not start with Harry home with Muggles and Harry is not persecuted and getting revenge on his Muggle family. Also this time the plot is less a detective mystery and more the story of a struggle. Another change is that Harry and friends are taking more interest in the opposite sex, though here the plotting is more mundane and less original.
Perhaps the dating adds identification value for the characters, but one does not have to go to a wizard school to find kids with much the same dating woes that Harry and his friends have. Harry may be more like a Muggle than the writers want to admit. Whoever it is who thought that what Harry Potter films needed was a rock band and a rave dance sequence sees the style of Potter films very differently than I do. Also an irritating vocal to the tune of electric guitars is pushed to the last of the end credits where it can do the least harm.
The story revolves around three plots. The Tri-Wizard tournament in which three (sorry, make that four) wizards compete. There is a ball not a whole lot different from a Junior Prom. And there is a plot by the Dark Wizard Voldemort who is becoming more tangible and visible than he had been in the past. The film starts with a blood-and-thunder opening, getting right into the dark style, which is lathered onto the film in gloomy nights and rainy days.
Problems with the story include that Harry is wrongly accused of a faux pas and almost immediately his best friends desert him. One even starts an insult campaign against Potter. This is an overwrought and unconvincing piece of plotting. Harry is still being bullied in spite of the fact that he is a hero and a sports star at Hogwarts and is anything but the sort of student who gets bullied. The so-called "goblet of fire" is very simply misnamed. Anything that size can hardly be called a goblet. Somewhere between J. K. Rowling's choice of the title and the making of the film somebody replaced the goblet with a large goblet-shaped urn.
Another piece of poor writing, by no means unique to this series, is that Harry's worst foes capture Harry and then tell him everything he needs to know assuming that he cannot possibly escape them. Of course he does escape. The talkative villain is a time-honoured tradition in James Bond films, but it seems more and more ridiculous the more it is used in film. The Incredibles does a nice riff on "soliloquizing." Also as far as I could tell one of Harry's challenges in the Tri-Wizard Tournament he wins only by luck. (Luck is also a feeble plot device overused in adventures like the Bond films.) Overuse of luck is not really playing fair with the viewer. I am not sure author J. K. Rowling's propensity to invent plot devices on the spot and then say they are a four-hundred-year tradition.
Much of the film is kept dark and rainy and director Mike Newell keeps stoking fire with more and more fantastic images, almost in a Terry Gilliam style. A very nice fight with a dragon seems homage to the now classic film Dragonslayer. The light, twinkly musical scores by John Williams have given way to a darker, deeper score by Patrick Doyle.
Characters that do not seem to have a payoff include Alan Rickman's Red Herring in Black and Miranda Richardson playing an unpleasant gossip columnist who seems to be from another movie. Voldemort is at last seen corporeal as a demon with no nose. (No nose? How does he smell? Probably awful.) He is played by Ralph Fiennes, who like Gary Oldman was in the film but totally unrecognisable. (Oldman was a face in a fire.) Delightfully recognizable was comic actress Francis de la Tour. Brendan Gleeson plays a new teacher with a roving eye.
The team who make the Harry Potter films know enough to keep varying the style so that they can call on the previous films without exploiting them. Arguably it is the most creative and unified fiction film series ever. If one discounts The Lord Of The Rings, which was not really a series but one very long film, and Star Wars, which was attempting to be one very long film even if it failed, there is very little competition for a film that shows one character's maturation.
After four films, each film in the series has been satisfying and this fourth film rates a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2005 Mark R. Leeper