It's a paradox of the Harry Potter films that they're made with such slavish devotion to the books, as if J.K. Rowling's fans would launch a megaplex riot at any violation of the sacred text, yet for all of that literal-minded fealty the final effect of the films is worlds removed from what's on the page. When you read Rowling, her tartly deadpan British commonsensical voice grounds the wizardry, making it seem almost funny in its matter-of-factness. Even as minor a bit of business as Harry's name appearing on a shred of paper as it gets spit out of the Goblet of Fire is conveyed with a twinkle, a subliminal wink of delight. In the movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco), that moment is just another processed effect from the digital factory, delivered straight up, with no more wit or enchantment than a hundred other F/X in a hundred other throwaway youth-fantasy films like, for instance, the genially prankish Herbie: Fully Loaded. The Potter books take place in a dowdy real world where magical things simply... happen. The movies, with the glorious semi-exception of director Alfonso Cuarón's luscious third chapter, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, unfold in a stagey, all-magic-all-the-time zone interrupted by functional clunks of reality. These films get the notes but not the melody.
In Goblet of Fire, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who at 14 looks more like a young Steven Spielberg than ever, has been chosen by some mystical unknown force to be the only underage contestant in the Triwizard Tournament, in which students from a handful of wizard prep academies compete in a trio of lethally dangerous tasks. The first challenge is a doozy: Harry, surrounded by spectators in a stone gladiatorial pit, must outwit a huge dragon and retrieve its golden egg. It's a rousingly tactile face-off, with Harry leaping out of the way of giant horns and fiery breaths and then jumping onto his Quidditch broom to lead the dragon on a madly fractious choreographed chase through the air.
As grand as that duel is, the film peaks a little too soon. Newell, unlike Cuarón, jams sequences together like bricks of LEGO, without giving the story an emotional flow. The other Triwizard labors are all staged as hermetic set pieces, with each one a little less exciting than the last. The biggest disappointment of Goblet of Fire is that Harry's first romantic stirrings, stoked by his new celebrity status as a Triwizard competitor and also by the suddenly dolled-up appearance of Hermione (Emma Watson) at a Hogwarts ball, are every bit as self-contained as the action. Young love, having finally reared its head, becomes just another LEGO block.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire does have its quota of antic marvels. Brendan Gleeson, as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Alastor ''Mad-Eye'' Moody, gives an amusingly twitchy performance from behind his roving fake eyeball, and seeing the face of Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, as a mask of molten fireplace embers is a lovely effect. As Professor Minerva McGonagall, Maggie Smith savors the dotty logic of lines like ''We never use transfiguration as a punishment!'' Newell has a gift for light comedy, and he knows just how to release the sour-ball charm of his fellow Brits. He's less good at the darkness, especially when Ralph Fiennes, under a heavy glaze of very bad waxy makeup (or, quite possibly, bad CGI), ultimately emerges from the shadows and from Harry's recurring nightmare as the fearsome Lord Voldemort. Kids may be appropriately terrified, but to this overgrown Potter fan, Voldemort, the Darth Vader of the black arts, was a heck of a lot scarier when you couldn't see him.