Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving notwithstanding, at last, the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire review

The book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as I’ve discussed in previous postings, is probably the best suited plot-wise for a feature film format. In addition to Harry warding off minions of the evil Lord Voldemort and dealing with his orphanhood and near celebrity status, there is also the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Contests and challenges generally work well within the structure of a feature film, because there is a clear goal from the outset. It also helps in breaking a bit of the monotony of the books and films, whereby each chapter depicts “another year” at Hogwarts. This fourth book is unique in that it depicts the Tri-Wizard tournament, where wizards and witches from all over the world compete for the Goblet of Fire through a series of challenges. But beyond this there are several new characters, (the different student competitors in the tournament), as well as new thematic elements brought on by the encroaching adolescence of Harry and friends. For all intents and purposes, this Harry Potter film should have been the strongest of the lot, but unfortunately I can’t say it is so.

From the moment the film started, its pace was at a breakneck speed. Harry’s eerie nightmare, was followed by a brief scene with Harry, Hermione and Ron at the Weasleys, that went right into a fun sequence with the port-key (an inanimate object that transports wizards hither and thither). Before you knew it the whole family was suddenly at the Quidditch world championships. There was a magical tent that appeared small on the outside but was gargantuan on the inside, amazing light up projection screens in the Quidditch stadium that showed the different players. It was exciting and impressive, but a lot of the interior shots and close-ups were dimly lit, and between the fast edits and the handheld camera work I found my eyes straining a little, as I tried to see what was going on. From the beginning I was agog at the visual FX work of the film, but felt luke-warm about the camera work.

The first three books in the Harry Potter series range approximately between three to four hundred pages, Goblet of fire is seven hundred and thirty four pages long. The filmmakers of the fourth installment had to deal with almost twice the material of the first three. Now maybe it’s just because I’ve read all the books, but I thought this film had a sort of frenetic and bloated feel that the other three didn’t have. There just seemed to be too much information to put into the movie to begin with.

The efforts of the filmmakers to get the film “going” were evident, as there was only a snippet of a scene in the Hogwarts Express, leading right to the exciting scene in the grand dining hall, where the visiting students who would also vie for the Goblet of Fire, were introduced via striking processions into the hall.

But through all of this…there was something missing. Never before had Hogwarts looked more like an ordinary boarding school. It looked dark and dreary, the magical ceiling in the dining hall was barely alluded to, there were no ghosts walking through walls or flying over head (where on earth was Nearly Headless Nick), the painting of the fat lady who guarded Griffindor house wasn’t around, and the stairways were not plastered in paintings with subjects that wandered in and out of the frames. People have commented that this film was the darkest of the Harry films yet, and it was dark, but I found more so in its lighting and dark wooden walls. The other films, even those led by Chris Columbus, had a pulsating sense of magic throughout them. In particular Alfonso Cuaron’s direction of the last film, Prisoner of Azkaban, really gave the Hogwarts school and grounds a personality of their own. The school was itself, a character in the film, and this was missing from Goblet of Fire. The magical atmosphere seemed diminished not only by the dreariness of the school, but also because there were less teacher demonstrations and student hijinx. Mad Eye Moody had a couple of funny moments with his wand in class, and the Weasley twins had a funny outcome with their aging potion, but all these moments felt squashed by the larger beast of the film. It was almost as if director Mike Newell wanted to ground Goblet of Fire in a sense of reality. But these are stories about magic and wizards and witches; Harry Potter isn’t meant for a gritty, and real tone.

Tone aside, I thought the action set pieces in this film were fantastic. If the Quidditch World Cup sequences were impressive, the three tasks that comprised the Tri-Wizard tournament were astounding. The first challenge involved the contestants battling off a dragon to snag the gold egg under its protection. Harry’s attempt at grabbing the egg, as he hid away from the dragon and conjured up a broom was intense and suspenseful. The dragon looked quite convincing, and was terrifying as it took flight up after Harry who fled on his broom. The sequence where Harry is clinging to the roof of a building and the dragon is clawing off the tiling next to him was inventively executed and looked terrific. Though we knew that Harry could never perish, he really just made it by the seat of his pants. In fact one of the ways I thought the film succeeded, was in creating a sense of how much Harry was in over his head with this tournament. The casting of the other tournament participants Cedric, Krum and Fleur was perfect. All three definitely looked not only older and bigger, but far more confident and capable than Harry himself, which added to the excitement of it all.

The underwater task, the second of the three, was probably my favorite action sequence of the film. The dark lake looked both freezing and foreboding, and all of the underwater shots looked terrific. The merpeople were just the right combination of graceful and terrifying and their surrounding landscape was a beautiful murky mysterious place. Harry’s struggle to free both Fleur’s sister and Ron was great, as was his tousle with the nasty squid that resided in the lake. It was fascinating to think that the right there in the confines of Hogwarts was an entire world that existed under the surface of the lake.

The third and final task, the hedge maze that contained the Goblet of Fire itself also had an eerie and fantastical design to it. I like the misty gray overhead shot of the sprawling massive dark hedges and the sense of claustrophobic panic brought on by the narrow and shrinking passageways that the contestants had to push through.

Then of course there was the final and ultimate face-off, where Harry had to face Voldemort in human form (portrayed by a noseless Ralph Fiennes). I thought Voldemort in his fetus like state before he was dropped into the bubbling cauldron looked terrifying, and once fully humanoid, Fiennes played him with the appropriate sinister touch. Though I already knew that Volde would strike Cedric Diggory down dead, the moment felt so sudden and passed over that it lacked half the impact it had in the book. I liked the moment where the spirits of Harry’s parents come back to help him fight off Voldemort, and the battling red and blue wands were quite reminiscent of a light saber tete a tete.

It is sad when Harry returns with Cedric’s body, and Cedric’s father mourns him as does the rest of the school population. But I can’t help but feel that his death would have been much more monumental if we’d had gotten a chance to see and learn more about Cedric’s character throughout the film. In fact, (I encourage someone to correct me if I’m wrong) as I recall, Cedric was actually a present and somewhat prominent character in the three books that preceded the Goblet of Fire. When he was killed by Voldemort in the fourth installment of the books, it was all the more shocking and sad. While I recognize its impossible for the film to recreate exactly the sentiment in the books, I thought they could have afforded more time with Cedric. Robert Pattison, the actor who played Cedric gave a fresh-faced, level headed courage to the roll and there were even some nice glimpses of a friendly camaraderie between Harry and Cedric, but I wish there had been more. Of course, therein lies the Harry Potter conundrum, (which can much largely be categorized as the book to screen conundrum) there simply isn’t enough time to fit in everything that needs to be fit in. And the fact that the Harry Potter readership is so wide and prevalent has in some ways made these movies into visual companions of the books, instead of cinematic interpretations. J.K. Rowling has been heavily involved in the films, making sure that they stay true to their source material. But because the stories can not be significantly reworked for the sake of cinematic structure and pacing, the result is films which mirror the book, but have vital chunks missing because of the limitations on length. Even Prisoner of Azkaban, which I thought was terrific, and the strongest of the films, left out some important things, namely, the bit of information that made Harry’s apparition as a white stag all the more relevant. There is no reveal (as there was in the book) that Harry’s father would transform into a stag, when he used his powers as an Animangus. Harry’s manifestation as a stag on the edge of the lake is all the more moving with the paternal connection.

Four films into the series, I think I’ve finally realized that these films may not be completely satisfying on their own if you have not read the books; and there is something flawed about that. I thought this movie had a lot of strong points. FX wise it looked amazing, it had exciting action in it, there were some cute moments of adolescent awkwardness with our main characters. But I think it lacked the mechanism to embellish itself properly, and tried to cram in various tidbits to a numbing effect. While Mike Newell, is an established and accomplished director, I don’t think his style was for me; I didn’t like the way he used the camera, and the choices he made with his production designers. There was something routine about a lot of scenes in the film, in particular those that weren’t driven by a larger action sequence. Overall it was a good film, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable couple hours of adventure. But for me, it lacked the heart and visual motifs of Cuaron’s Azkaban. All in all I guess I wish this film had had a little more fire in its goblet.


Blogger phinney said...

i'll leave the 1st comment on this one. ralph fiennes does look creepy and i actually wanna it see now that i have seen the dragon and know there is an underwater sequence. good job.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

You've put your finger on it.

For each of the Harry Potter movies, the story-telling has always seemed to me to be like "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened, and etc." You get great individual scenes (I'm completely with you in your appreciation of the dragon clawing its away across the roofing tiles) but the narrative feels somehow broken. What was with the flying car that makes that second appearance in the second (?) movie, does this bit with the haunted tree and disappears? What did that have to do with anything? Harry wins the tri-wizard tournament. Sad tidings at the end to be sure, but didn't he *win* it? Isn't that supposed to be a *big thing*? There wasn't a single mention of the outcome in the movie's denoument. All of the Potter movies have the same disconnected feeling.

I mentioned this "assortment-of-scenes" syndrome to a coworker who told me that she's read all the books and so she knows from them all the missing bits that tie everything together. I haven't read any of the books, so I'm left to judge the story only on the merit of the movie which always leave me kind of underwhelmed.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Daddy Background said...

P.S. Went to the Apple download site for the first time in quite a while and discovered the joys of High-definition trailers.

Ain't technology wunnerful!

6:52 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah, ---I mean I've read the books, so I too know the bits that fill in the blanks, but I also try to step back and look at the movies as just films.

The High Definition trailers on Apple rule.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous DoorFrame said...

I didn't like any of the first three Harry Potter movies. They were all jumpy and didn't ever develop charachters. It's hard to care about people when the scenes last three seconds long and only sort of allude to things that happened in the books.

Admittedly, #4 had the same problems (in some ways it was even more jumpy than the others). But, for reason, I found this one considerably more enteraining. And the part that really gets me, is that the stuff I realy liked was the awkward teenager stuff. Usually I HATE that part of the movie, the stupid "hey, let's make sure there's some dating stuff going here... you know, uh, because girls like it?" But for once it was amusing, felt natural, and actualy helped to develop some actual charachters instead of just relying on the freaking lightning bolt to say everything you need to say about Harry and his friends.

Anyway, yeah, surprisingly I enjoyed it.

I'm looking forward to 5, though. I really didn't like the book.

9:01 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I didn't care much for the fifth book either --my least favorite in the series.

2:18 PM  

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