Harry Potter is back, and his new adventure, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (Warner Bros.), conjures enough movie magic to cast a satisfying spell over audiences.
"Goblet of Fire" is the fourth movie adapted from the hugely popular fantasy novels by British author J.K. Rowling.
Directed by Mike Newell, the film is entertaining, intelligent and visually delicious, but despite considerable plot-pruning, at an unwieldy two hours and 37 minutes this "Goblet" runneth over a bit long.
Continuing the moodier tone set by 2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the new installment -- the darkest thus far -- is the first in the franchise to be rated PG-13.
From its spooky opening image, the film is probably too scary for young children, who might have nightmares, precisely what's plaguing the bespectacled hero (a more grown-up Daniel Radcliffe) at the story's outset. This is especially true for the scenes involving the "Death Eaters," agents of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes in fearsome face makeup), who finally makes his much-anticipated appearance in the series.
But for most of "Goblet of Fire," the story revolves around a three-task, interscholastic competition known as the Triwizard Tournament to be hosted at Hogwarts.
Rooted on by Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (a blossoming Emma Watson), Harry is chosen to compete along with Hogwartsian upperclassman Cedric Diggory, French enchantress Fleur Delacour, and a Bulgarian bruiser named Viktor Krum.
The dangerous trials pit them against fire-breathing dragons, menacing mermaids and a sinister hedge-maze. But to bashful Harry, those perils pale compared to the harrowing ordeal of finding a date for Hogwarts' annual Christmas ball, injecting some lighthearted teen romance into the abracadabra action mix.
The onset of awkward adolescence adds an interesting new emotional dimension to the relationships of the three young leads, who continue to mature along with the story. (The film could have done without an eyebrow-raising scene in which a frisky girl ghost cozies up to a thoroughly embarrassed Harry while bathing.)
Dependable support is provided by returning British stalwarts Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane, as well as by newcomers Frances De La Tour, Miranda Richardson and Brendan Gleeson.
Like past "Potter" films, "Goblet" is a treat for the eyes. But after three films, it's getting harder to impress viewers with Quidditch matches and swooping shots of Hogwarts' candlelit banquet hall. And though exciting, the action sequences including a requisite Play Station-ready aerial broom chase feel a bit deja vu.
As with the magical elements in its predecessors, those in "Goblet of Fire" should be viewed as time-honored storytelling devices, like those employed throughout the history of Western fantasy literature from childhood fairy tales (Cinderella's pumpkin being turned into a carriage) to Arthurian legends and Shakespeare.
A reference by Voldemort about the "old magic" wrought by the sacrificial love of Harry's mother (who died protecting him in his infancy) seems to echo the salvific "Deeper Magic" spoken of in C.S. Lewis' Christian-allegorical "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Curbed is Harry's habit of rule-breaking. Perhaps as he matures, so has his sense of integrity, evidenced by his -- on more than one occasion -- endangering his chance of winning to do the honorable thing (that is, saving a life).
"Goblet of Fire" presents the clearest delineation between "right" and "wrong" in the series thus far, even introducing moral imperatives into the students' hocus-pocus curriculum.
Despite lots of wand-waving, the real victories are won through self-sacrifice. As Gambon's Dumbledore counsels, "We must face the choice between what is right and what is easy." Such life lessons would support the contention of Father Peter Fleetwood, a Vatican official formerly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, that "the chief concern of ... (Rowling) is to help children understand the conflict between good and evil."
The film contains frightening images, scenes of intense menace and some sexual innuendo. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents are strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.