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Smells like teen spirit

Go, Harry, go!
  • Go, Harry, go!

*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (PG-13)
Carmike 10 Stadium, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) didn't ask to have his name drawn from the titular vessel in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He didn't ask for the "honor" that obliges him, at 14, to participate in a life-threatening magical competition that was supposed to be open only to students older than 17. He has been hurled into adulthood so much earlier than he feels ready, and -- perhaps worst of all -- he's going to have to manage by himself.

J.K. Rowling's mega-selling series of books has been talked about for its pop-culture ubiquity, its ability to make video game and iPod junkies actually read, and its alleged unhealthy influence on those readers by dealing with the occult. What often has been lost is how unflinchingly Rowling has addressed the touchstones of her characters' growth from precocious 11-year-olds into teenagers.

Director Mike Newell's (Four Weddings and a Funeral) version of the fourth book keeps a surprisingly tight focus on the unnerving, dark, appropriately PG-13-rated changes in Harry's world as he wrestles with transformations that have nothing to do with magic.

In fact, magic takes a noteworthy back seat in Goblet. Yes, the centerpiece Tri-Wizard Tournament is a magical competition that pits host school Hogwarts against two rival European academies. True, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) still face classes and yet another new Dark Arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson). And, of course, Lord Voldemort, whose Death Eater loyalists have re-emerged, has evil machinations afoot.

But the film's emphasis really falls on those bursts of irrational emotion and constant fears of humiliation that practically define adolescence. Harry and Ron tussle over Ron's belief that Harry has made a grab for glory by sneaking into the tournament. Both of them agonize over finding a date for the Yule Ball, while finding it hard to wrap their heads around the realization that their friend Hermione actually, you know, is a girl. In one charming scene, Harry is mortified at being caught in the bath by the ghostly Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson).

Goblet nails these moments of youthful unease, yet also deals with Harry's alienation in a broader sense. The steadfast Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at times appears completely confused; institutions, in the form of the Ministry of Magic, seem to act more out of concern for public relations than individuals' safety. "You're not alone," Dumbledore tries to assure Harry at one point, but it's easy to see he's finding that harder and harder to believe.

Newell -- a terrific director of actors -- turns out to be an ideal choice for this installment, though he's not as comfortable with the other places a Potter film is expected to go. The few action sequences feel awkwardly constructed, the edits often too hurried. He hasn't got the knack for grand-scale fantasy that Chris Columbus brought to the first two films, nor is he a visual storyteller on the level of Prisoner of Azkaban's Alfonso Cuarn, so there are bound to be places where Goblet feels less thrilling.

At times, however, it is the best of the bunch, because it gives its characters so much room to breathe. Perhaps part of that comes from the unique experience of watching its three young stars grow up, and grow more confident as actors. Regardless, it's a crucial element of this series, more so even than wands and Whomping Willows.

J.K. Rowling has created an epic about three young people on the complex journey towards maturity, and the most enchanting experience of all simply might be taking that journey with them.

-- Scott Renshaw

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