The Potter-illiterate should avoid 'Goblet' like the plague

by Liz Ellison | 11/21/05 6:00am

I'll begin with a disclaimer: a Harry Potter fan I am not. I couldn't name the latest book in the series if my life depended on it. I think the word "muggle" is sort of dumb. When people try to make me see the error of my ways -- "They're not just kids' books! The plots are so good! I swear!" -- I secretly laugh at them.

That said, everyone's -- well, almost everyone's -- favorite boy wizard and his gang of magical friends make their fourth big screen appearance in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," a film that attempts to translate a 734-page book into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

The audiences who lined up hours in advance for the first three films demonstrated equal enthusiasm for the latest installment. Before I reached the theater, I had pessimistically envisioned masses of small children in black robes, toting broomsticks. Thankfully, this spectacle didn't materialize. I saw few children of any age, but learned that the line had been out the door for 45 minutes by the time I bought my ticket. People are insane.

Under director Mike Newell, the cast of "Harry Potter" -- with few exceptions -- delivers performances that tend, for the most part, towards cringe-worthy overacting. Daniel Radcliffe, a likeable enough but fairly dull Harry, is often eclipsed by the gag-inducing antics of Emma Watson's obnoxious but well-meaning Hermione and Rupert Grint's slow-witted Ron, the increasingly resentful sidekick to our reluctant hero.

The film's plot centers on the Triwizard Tournament, hosted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The tournament pits champions from each of three schools of magic against one another in a series of dangerous tasks, with the winner achieving eternal glory and honor, or something to that effect. When Harry's name is mysteriously chosen for the tournament, along with that of Hogwarts' own "Mr. Popularity," Cedric Diggory, headmaster Albus Dumbledore declares that Harry has no choice but to compete.

The suspicious circumstances of Harry's selection, combined with a nasty recurring dream that he's been having about You-Know-Who, can only mean one thing: Someone's out to get him! Someone wants him to be killed in the tournament, which has claimed the lives of students much more advanced than Harry.

The film makes surprisingly sparse use of special effects, relying less on action sequences and more on attempts at character development. Most important are the changing relationships between Harry, Ron and Hermione, who, at 14, must face the daunting prospect of finding dates for the Yule Ball, the Hogwarts equivalent of a prom.

Even worse -- gasp! -- is that in this movie, Ron and Harry get into a fight! Ron even tells Harry to "piss off!" It's just scandalous! One especially awful scene finds Hermione acting as go-between while the two give each other the silent treatment. Please, let's go back to watching a fire-breathing dragon try to kill Harry.

Of the film's non-adolescent characters, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, who returns from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") and Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a new professor charged with watching over Harry, play the biggest roles. Gleeson's ghoulish portrayal of the sinister Moody might appeal to kids properly grossed out by the bulbous, laughably fake-looking eyeball responsible for the professor's nickname, but his overdone creepiness gets old fast.

Other familiar faces, including Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Snape (Alan Rickman) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), merely flit in and out of the action. Their lack of presence can be attributed to the necessary omission of side plots from the book, but none of the characters stand out as underutilized in the film. Rather, scenes such as those involving Hagrid's flirtation with the enormous headmistress of a witches' school more than exhaust these characters' appeal.

In addition to the aforementioned dragon, Harry faces both a swarm of mermaids holding his friends captive underwater and a huge hedge maze that can bewitch people. In particular, while watching Harry and Cedric racing through the maze to escape a possessed competitor, I suddenly longed to be watching "The Shining" instead. Actually, I longed to be watching any movie instead. "Glitter," anyone? How about "Spice World"? Wait, that would just be trading one movie about really annoying British people for another. Silly me.

"Harry Potter" climaxes disappointingly, with Ralph Fiennes playing a noseless Voldemort. I might have found Voldemort more threatening if I hadn't been so amused by his noselessness. Then again, maybe not.

People unfamiliar with the series shouldn't see this film first, since they'll be left with too many questions. (Just who is this Sirius Black fellow? What's the deal with Wormtail? Please, for the love of all that's holy, why doesn't someone cut Harry's hair?)

I tried to like this movie. But "Harry Potter" becomes progressively less exciting, and its key players are little more than irritating one-dimensional sketches. Non-fans should stay home.