phoenix

[This is part three of a four-part series. You can also read part one, part two, and part four. This article contains spoilers for the films discussed, but NOT for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince]

Next up: Director Mike Newell’s take on the Potter franchise. Newell cut his teeth directing TV but went onto demonstrate his range in film through well-crafted dramas (Donnie Brasco) and comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pushing Tin). While clearly talented, he’s not the first person that would have come to mind when choosing a director for this series, but obviously, all that matters is whether or not the film measures up. So how good is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Goblet of Fire sees Hogwarts hosting the Triwizard tournament, a competition between three schools that tests the wizardry mettle of students from each school. When the Goblet of Fire inexplicably chooses Harry to be entered into the tournament, Harry must do what he can to survive and to win, while still maintaining his humanity.

Goblet of Fire was the first film of the series to be rated PG-13 and I have to agree that it earns this designation. There’s some disturbing and dark imagery in this film, and there are plenty of moments that saw me genuinely frightened. The challenges of the Triwizard tournament were among the most exciting and inventive elements of the series so far, and I watched each of the three challenges with rapt attention. The action is well-paced and Newell apparently subscribes to the “Lots of small things attacking a person as s/he is trying to get away” school of suspense filmmaking (and he does it really, really well).

[While we're on the subject of children getting attacked, is it just me or is Hogwarts the most terrible school in the history of Muggle-kind? Children are placed in peril with more frequency here than they are in the whole of films such as Slumdog Millionaire and City of God. Students can easily die during the Triwizard tournament (and in fact, one does), but somehow everyone is okay with that. The quidditch matches don't seem to safe either, with children hurtling through the sky on flimsy broomsticks while a massive metallic ball flies around at lightning speed with reckless abandon. And don't even get me started on the actual education itself: The Defense of Dark Arts class is the revolving door of professor appointments. Who exactly is responsible for hiring at Hogwarts, and why don't they do some standard background checks?]

We get a taste in this film of middle school/high school teenage dynamics, as the students are forced to find dates for the Yule Ball and the sexual tension between Hermione and Ron is brought to the forefront. I wasn’t particularly interested in these developments, but I respected their presence in the film for one reason: They show that underneath all the magical happenings, and beneath the weight of fate upon the shoulders of students like Harry Potter, all of these characters are still just kids. They’re insensitive, they’re petulant, they’re easily hurt, but they also have a lot of love for each other. Newell takes this opportunity to further build the relationship of these characters we’ve spent so much time with already, and it adds a different dimension to them that I’m ultimately grateful for.

Also, it’s finally in this film that Voldemort ceases to be confined to the back of some guy’s head or some withered husk, and instead, returns in the form of a man. I had my doubts about how this would play out, since up until this point, the myth was bigger than the man in my mind. Voldemort was effective as an unstoppable, amorphously evil force, when you had no idea what form he would take, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was Ralph Fiennes who would be stepping into the role. This is a man who has previously played the personification of evil, not to mention his recent turn as the psychotic hitman in In Bruges. Only someone with as much talent for vileness as Ralph Fiennes could possibly equal the unspeakable depravity of Voldemort; if they had gotten anyone other than him, I’m not sure it would have worked for me.

I enjoyed Goblet of Fire a lot, and I particularly enjoyed this film’s final confrontation, in which Harry comes face to face with Voldemort. The ultimate reveal of the Alastor Moody deception was also really satisfying, and I came out of this movie even more thrilled than I did with Prisoner of Azkaban (although I still haven’t decided which one is the better film).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Order of the Phoenix saw the reins being handed over to the talented David Yates (State of Play [miniseries], The Girl in the Cafe). Notable for being one of the shortest films in the series, yet based on the longest book, I found a lot to like about Order of the Phoenix but ultimately found its CGI-heavy finale fairly disappointing.

This latest story sees Potter inspired by the Order of the Phoenix, a secret organization formed by Dumbledore to fight Voldemort and his followers. As Dumbledore tries to convince those at the Ministry of Magic and elsewhere that Voldemort is indeed back, Dolores Umbridge is installed at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sapping the life out of the place and transforming it into a miniature version of McCarthy-era America (or 1980s Stasi-monitored East Berlin).It should be said that not only is Imelda Stauntun perfectly cast as Umbridge, but her stunningly pink wardrobe evokes an uptightness and propriety that visually clashes with the anarchic proceedings of Hogwarts. Certainly, she’s the latest in a series of very memorable side characters.

Notably, this film sees Potter actually taking initative and applying what he’s learned to raise Dumbledore’s army. These sequences, where Potter is training his fellow students in the spell’s he’s been forced to use in the previous films, pay off everything we’ve seen happen to Potter thus far. Moreover, they actually filled me with a little bit of pride; at this point, I’ve spent 10 hour watching Potter being subjected to all sorts of punishment and battle. It’s gratifying firstly to reflect on everything he’s been through and what he’s survived, but also to see him apply those teachings to something meaningful.

Some time is devoted towards showing the school’s newly found oppressive nature, but I wanted even more of this element; it’s a terrible thing for adults to force children to turn against each other, and when that finally happens in this film, it could have been even more devastating.

As for the final confrontation (are you starting to sense a theme in these reviews and in these movies?), I thought it was pretty lackluster. At no point during the fight in the Snow Globe Prophecy Room did I ever believe that these were characters interacting in an actual physical space. And while some of the CGI is passable, Yates doesn’t yet grasp that what makes these encounters so riveting is the drama between the characters, not a series of explosive collisions between the stuff that comes out of these characters’ wands. I’d rather see a well-acted exchange between Dumbledore and Voledemort than see how impressively they can conjure up a CGI fireballs against each other, but that’s just me.

Overall, though, the difference between films three through five, when compared with Columbus’ first two entries, is clear: The latter films in the series feel much more coherent as films, and seem more interested in maintaining our interest in a narrative throughline than wowing us with the wonders of the Potter universe. This observation applies to Order of the Phoenix as well, which, for all its flaws, is still a fairly effective piece of filmmaking. I just wish the ending had given us a little bit more to chew on (instead it felt like a rehash of Goblet of Fire’s ending, extended wand-duel and all).

Some other leftover notes:

- After taking in these five films in the course of the week (and without having read any of the books), there are two characters I feel short-changed by: Dumbledore and Sirius Black. Dumbledore is supposed to be a highly respected and wise wizard, and while I’m fans of the work that Richard Harris and Michael Gambon have put in, I think the characters are underwritten and don’t offer enough in the films to truly earn my reverance. The same also goes for Gary Oldman as Sirius Black; Black’s transformation from Potter’s enemy to father figure happens too quickly in Azkaban and I never really bought it (yet their relationship becomes essential for the finale in Order of the Phoenix). For both Dumbledore and Black, I constantly felt like I was being told what to feel about these two characters, as opposed to actually feeling that way. I’m sure these problems don’t exist in the books, but in the films, they bothered me.

- I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Robert Pattinson, who does an adequate job as Cedric Diggory, one of Harry’s competitors in the Triwizard tournament in Goblet of Fire. While the character utters only a few lines throughout the entire film, it’s worth noting that Pattinson is not nearly as bad as he was in Twilight. Regrettably, I think the latter film (or at least his performance in it) will end up overshadowing his entire career, and may be difficult for him to live down: It was impossible for me to watch him without having physically unpleasant flashbacks of my Twilight viewing experience. (See Orlando Bloom, for an example of another talented actor who has been unable to get over his “pretty boy” status in the States enough to be taken seriously) Let me know if you feel the same way.

**

I have heard that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of the best films of the whole bunch, potentially the best. I’m going to go see the film tonight at the Regal Fenway Theater in Boston, and my hopes are high that Yates, having settled into the director’s chair for the rest of the series, will deliver us a film that will work as both a Potter film and an adventure film in general. We’ll find out tomorrow if I am right.

Discuss: What did you think of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?

[This is part three of a four-part series. You can also read part one, part two, and part four.]

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About the Author

David Chen currently lives and works in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter at @davechensky. He can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

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