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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 20, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The way I figure it, if you are already following the Harry Potter movies, you won't care what I say in this review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- you're going to see it.

Of course, like me you may have to see it from the second row, with your neck craning upward and the faces so big you have to look back and forth like watching a tennis match in order to tell who it is ... but that's what happens when you arrive a mere half-hour early for a hit movie. The people in the good seats had been there for a showing three hours before and bought their tickets and waited around. I didn't have a chance.

And that was a late showing on the second day.

So this movie is already a hit. What can I say, except that it deserves to be?

I can at least say bad things about the first two Harry Potter movies.

When those movies came out, I gave them good reviews, because they deserved them. The scripts were faithful to the books; they were enjoyable as top-of-the-line children's fantasies; and mostly we were just relieved that they didn't mess it up.

However, the first two films were directed by Chris Columbus, which always means that the film will look cheerily bright, the action will be clear, the actors' performances will be obvious but adequate, and the story will be shallow.

What was missing was the darkness in the books. Admittedly, in the first couple of books, that darkness could be missed. But as I think back over those first two Harry Potter films, I can see that the script did not miss the darkness and pain -- it was simply glossed over by Chris Columbus's perpetually inept direction.

Steve Kloves, the writer, has never missed. The writer/director of The Fabulous Baker Boys, Klove was a natural for developing strong characters and relationships in the Harry Potter franchise, and his work in adapting these books has been superb.

Especially with Goblet of Fire: When I read the book, I thought it was unmanageably long, that it would take two movies to cover the storyline. I also thought it wasn't author J.K. Rowling's best effort in the series; it made emotional demands on the reader that the writing had not prepared us for.

But Kloves made short work of some of the framing incidents that take up so much of the opening of the book. In fact, if there's any flaw in this movie, it's that these opening bits are so brief that an audience member who is not already following the series could get lost and confused: What's going on? Why am I supposed to care about this?

Once we get to Hogwarts, though, and the beginning of the Tri-wizard contest, the movie becomes clear and, eventually, even those initial incidents fall into place, so that the movie is complete in itself. And there was no time wasted on pandering to more-of-the-same fans: The Malfoys are nearly ignored here, with Draco almost invisible; Hagrid is only present for comic relief; and some subplots were completely erased.

Yet every choice of what to omit and what to emphasize was right on the money.

All of this is owed to one of the most superb adapters in the history of film. Steve Kloves has been flat-out brilliant.

Which makes the relative emptiness of the first two films entirely the responsibility of Chris Columbus.

Columbus has had a stellar career -- on paper, anyway. His films have made billions of dollars. The trouble is, the vast majority of them sucked, and for reasons that are consistent across his entire oeuvre.

As a writer, all he could ever create was icons and stereotypes -- if he ever seemed to create a character, it was because an actor supplied the illusion of one. His scripts for Gremlins, Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes epitomize all-adventure, no-character writing. I still find elements of all three so appallingly ignorant of how storytelling even works that Chris Columbus's career is explicable only when you recognize that Hollywood, as a culture, has no clue about story, either.

And when Columbus turned to directing, what did we get? Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, the appalling Only the Lonely and Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire (which I loathed but lots of other people apparently liked), the even-more-appalling Nine Months and Stepmom, the sadly missed opportunity of Bicentennial Man, and then the Harry Potter movies. Oh, and he wrote the awful Christmas with the Kranks, thereby proving that he hasn't lost his touch as a writer.

What is the formula of a Chris Columbus movie? One gag after another -- in both meanings of the word "gag." We get the illusion of action, as he spins out elaborate stunts; we get attempts at humor that are usually somewhere between sophomoric and cruel; and when he tries for sentiment it's usually appallingly mawkish, sappy, and unearned.

I am convinced that the only reason the first two Harry Potter movies worked at all was that he was compelled to adhere to the work of two far-better writers than himself: Rowling herself, whose enormous success as a novelist gave her complete veto power over everything in the movie; and Steve Kloves, who somehow negotiated the shoals between the Scylla of Rowling and the Charybdis of Columbus and came up with that most unheard-of of achievements: The director-proof script.

It was only with the third movie, which was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, that the pain and grit of Rowling's story, rather than just the "fun" of it, began to become visible. The young actors, too, finally began to give better-than-adequate performances.

It is with Goblet of Fire, under the direction of Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile, Pushing Tin, Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Enchanted April), that we find out that the three leading kids, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, can really act -- maybe they've only just matured enough to do so, or maybe nobody who knew what acting is ever asked them to.

Now I wish they could go back and remake the first two movies with a real director. But of course you can't make the lead actors young again. We'll simply have to keep this film series in mind as one that got better with each installment.

Of course, we have yet to see what David Yates will do with Order of the Phoenix -- he is virtually untried as a director of features. And the director of Half-Blood Prince, as yet unnamed, will have his work cut out for him, for this is the first of the books not to stand alone.

Kloves is writing Half-Blood Prince, and is working on it at the same time that Michael Goldenberg is writing Order of the Phoenix. Since Kloves has been so important to the success of these movies, it should be worrisome that he is not writing every script. The consolation is that Goldenberg is the author of the screenplay of the brilliant live-action Peter Pan (2003) -- I could not think of a better replacement, if a replacement was needed.

And as the LA Times reported, Kloves himself thinks that one advantage to having two writers is that they can film the next two films back-to-back. This is important if they are to have the young actors still be credible in their roles. To recast the leads in the later films, he says, would be fatal to the franchise -- and I agree.

Kloves and Goldenberg will solve, in the script, whatever problems the books might pose. So if the later films don't measure up, we'll know who the problem is -- the director.

If Goblet of Fire remains the best of the Harry Potter movies, it won't necessarily mean that the later ones are bad. It will merely mean that Goblet of Fire transcended the series; it is not merely the best of the Harry Potters, it is one of the best movies of the year.

In fact, I'll go farther, at the risk of a lynching by diehard Pottermanes: Goblet of Fire is better than the book. The emotional payoff at the end truly moved me, far more than the book did. Characters that the book left as fairly empty icons were made real here. Moral dilemmas that were spread out over many pages and never quite clarified in the book are focused and piquant in this film.

And Goblet may deserve some weird kind of award for having created the funniest and sexiest scene with a ghost in a bathtub ever made.


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