As much as you can enjoy the spell-binding Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, you can't ignore the hints of strain in the film franchise about the bespectacled student at the British wizard school. The movies have been enormously successful -- with Goblet of Fire, they'll probably gross more than $1 billion in the United States alone -- but they don't make the leap from page to screen by magic. You're acutely aware of the sweat involved as director Mike Newell transforms a 734-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
In the fourth film since 2001, Goblet knows the drill, and doesn't waste time reintroducing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his loyal friends, eccentric professor and vicious enemies. Goblet of Fire's central complication comes from "The Tri-Wizard Tourney," in which sorcery students from France and Bulgaria visit Hogwarts for a kind of dangerous magical Olympics -- in which Harry finds himself an unwilling competitor.
Like many adolescents, Harry frequently feels like an outcast, and he suffers the suspicion of his schoolmates (even Rupert Grint as his best friend) who think he rigged his entry in the tourney. He finds a new mentor in the tough-love teacher "MadEye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson, making a pungent addition to the series). Goblet of Fire builds to Harry's face-to-face confrontation with his undead nemesis Lord Voldemort: We've been waiting at least four years for it, and Ralph Fiennes, in freaky makeup and a lusty but measured performance, does not disappoint.
Director Alfonso Cuarón gave the idiosyncratic previous film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the most heart, the warmest relationships and the deepest texture. But Goblet of Fire provides the most thrilling spectacle, with the grandest special effects and most suspenseful set pieces. The horror-movie sequences with Voldemort and the three tasks of the tourney all prove wildly effective -- at one point Harry plays cat-and-mouse with a dragon on Hogwarts' rooftops.
As a turning point in the series, the Goblet of Fire film needs to -- and does -- feel "bigger" than the previous installments. Not only did author J.K. Rowling expand her dark whimsy to something with more of an epic scope, but she also gives her now-14-year-old protagonists more grown-up concerns. Romance becomes a pressing issue and Harry and his pals, seeking dates for a dance, quip that girls can be scarier than dragons. The sexual tension becomes surprisingly direct when Harry gets an uninvited bath-time visit from spectral schoolgirl Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson).
Growing up also means dealing with death, and the Tri-Wizard Tourney could be a metaphor for life. You've got a group of young people, at their physical peak, striving for a prize that could merely be a grave: No matter who wins or loses, we all reach the same finish line. Near the end, mortality hits the film with a powerful blow that transcends some of the frivolous comedy and drawn-out dating scenes.
In the books, Rowling has license to take her sweet time with her themes. She's turned the children's series into not just a rich, escapist fantasy, but a year-by-year coming-of-age tale, an allegory against race and class bigotry, and even an autobiographical spoof on the price of celebrity (in Goblet of Fire, Miranda Richardson's amusing tabloid columnist lets the author vent irritation at the press). Newell prunes a great deal from the book but still has to cover so much material that he comes across like one of those old plate-spinner acts: As he revs up one subplot, the others slow down.
It doesn't help that Rowling's solution to every plot problem or new idea is to trot out more characters. On screen, Goblet of Fire mercifully leaves out such unfunny film roles as the house elves and Harry's "Muggle" relatives, but still parades an army of regulars past the audience: Snape! Hagrid! Draco Malfoy's pseudo-Nazi father! Hollywood will never supplant the Harry Potter books, since you need the originals to fill in the films' sketchy explanations.
In contrast to the child's play of the first two Harry Potter films, directed by Chris Columbus, Goblet of Fire feels particularly mature and "epic." Yet it goes out with surprisingly little fanfare, as if it's just another chapter in an increasingly impressive yet never-ending story.