'Goblet' is a sure-fire hit

J.K. Rowling turns out the "Harry Potter" novels and, like clockwork, the movies follow. Notice I didn't say churns out - Rowling is a real writer. But the movie adaptations have been highly variable in quality.

The first two - "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" - were both directed by Chris Columbus. Therein lies the rub. Columbus is a journeyman entertainer, but the material called for a magician. Rowling's novels are far richer even as a visual experience than those movies. One reason the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy so easily overshadowed the Columbus films is because Peter Jackson, for all his fetishizing of ghouls and glop, had a genuine feeling for the fantastical.

Things picked up considerably with the film version of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" because its director, Alfonso Cuarón, had a direct pipeline to childhood imaginings. (His 1995 "A Little Princess" is one of the finest of all children's films - which is another way of saying that everyone who sees it is left enchanted.) Although it doesn't often scale the visionary heights of Cuarón's film, at its best, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which was directed by Mike Newell, is a worthy successor.

For one thing, Newell is the first Englishman to direct a Potter film, and he understands in his bones the rigors and snobbishness of a place like Hogwarts, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now in his fourth year. Whatever else the novels are, they are also marvelous metaphors for the English class system.

But as in the "Prisoner of Azkaban," "Goblet of Fire" reveals that system through a glass darkly. Rowling's novel ran to more than 700 pages, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has written all of the films, does his usual admirable job of paring the story to its essentials. (That means that S.P.E.W. - a subplot about the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare - had to go.) The new Potter movie has the tension and velocity of a good thriller.

Fans of Quidditch may regret that "Goblet of Fire" cuts back on the usual aerial whoop-de-do, but there is more than enough of the dreaded Triwizard Tournament, a competition for which Harry is mysteriously made a participant even though, at age 14, he is technically too young to be an entrant. Whoever is responsible for Harry's qualification is up to no good, and so Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) enlists "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, to keep his all-seeing blue peeper fixed squarely on Harry.

A poignant subtext here is that, for the first time, Dumbledore is genuinely perplexed by all the evil at work. He's scared, which injects a note of humanity into the proceedings, although it does nothing to reassure Harry, who must undergo his trials alone and unguided. The Triwizard tasks - which include evading a ferocious dragon, diving deep into a great lake, and combating a malevolent maze - are increasingly harrowing.

Equally harrowing, in some respects, is the student's Yule Ball, where for the first time we are made thunderously aware that Harry and the carrot-topped Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are, well, adolescents. What could be more terrifying?

Actually, it's been apparent for some time that these kids were becoming little men and women, and never more so than in that splendiferously comic moment in "Prisoner of Azkaban" when Hermione, who has gone back in time with Harry, sees the back of herself and wails, "Does my hair really look like that?"

I wish "Goblet of Fire" had a few grace notes of levity to match that one. Just because Maggie Smith's Professor Minerva McGonagall has banned frivolity from Hogwarts doesn't mean the filmmakers should follow suit. But there's ample reason to stay with this series. When Harry says "I love magic," you believe it. Grade: A-

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.

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