While I disliked the omissions and alterations of Prisoner of Azkaban when I first saw it, revisiting it after aging enough to distance myself from a rabid love of the books allowed me to appreciate it for the artistic triumph that it is. It's still got its fair share of weaknesses, but the character moments and stylistic feel made it far more interesting than the previous films combined. I noted with a certain sense of regret and resignation that Steve Kloves once again penned the screenplay for this next sequel, but Azkaban was a step up, so anything's possible, right?
To my surprise, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is almost as good as Prisoner of Azkaban, and sometimes a bit better. Cuaròn's direction hinted at an Expressionist influence, which the latest director, Mike Newell, mixes with the action movie vibe of the Triwizard challenges and really plays up in the final act, in which the film becomes a true horror film, albeit one softened to appeal to the young demographic. Mad-Eye Moody himself looks like he tumbled out of a Fritz Lang movie, while Hogwarts' juxtaposition o cluttered, maze-like halls and the quiet terrain that engulfs its exterior continues to cast a sense of foreboding.
Harry finds himself in the Triwizard tournament, which is only open to 17-year-olds, when his name somehow appears in the titular goblet, which announces the names of the champions representing each of the three schools involved: Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poesy) for Beauxbatons, star Quidditch player Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) for Durmstrang and Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) for Hogwarts. Understandably, these rightful contestants and their headmasters are a bit miffed to discover that Hogwarts has two shots at glory and that such a young boy (the biggest celebrity in their world, no less) should steal the spotlight from them. Harry is simply terrified.
Aiding him in preparing for these tasks, naturally, are Ron and Hermione, who apparently reached the pitiful apex of their character arcs in the film series and must now start the slide down back into mediocrity and two-dimensionality. Harry's moodiness is on the horizon, but here it's Ron's time for angst, which just comes off as shallow. The book didn't handle this subplot in a particularly deep way, but you could at least understand why Ron, the dirt poor kid always in the shadow of the celebrity Harry and the whiz Hermione, might deeply resent his friend thrust into the spotlight yet again, but you'd think he take into account how much Harry loathes the attention and how he never seeks it. Watson reverts to that annoying breathlessness that defined her line deliveries in the first film. Even as she must deal with the half-formed love triangle involving Krum and Ron, she becomes less interesting than ever thanks to the incessant overacting.
Also helping out is Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a battle-scarred Auror (dark wizard catcher) with a fake leg and a magical replacement eye. He accepts the empty Defense Against the Dark Arts position, presumably because he clearly has so few limbs left to lose. Gleeson is on fire as the thundering, lumbering Moody, capturing the character's off-kilter, slightly sadistic humor nicely. The only other noteworthy addition is David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr., though the nature of the character means he remains mostly unseen, unfortunately.
Each of the Triwizard tasks are filmed with a harmonious blend of blockbuster action and darker chills, particularly in the the reedy mire of the lake bottom and the icy fright of the maze. When Harry winds up in a graveyard to face his nemesis, the tone only grows colder, thanks in no small part to Ralph Fiennes' short but sweet appearance as the reconstituted Voldemort. Before he even utters a word, you know they found the right man for the job: Voldemort speaks not with an evil, serpentine hiss but with the ennui befitting someone so powerful. The wretched stammering of his summoned followers doesn't concern him, and the only time he displays any emotion at all is in his wrath toward Harry. Fiennes is one of the finest casting choices yet in a franchise stuffed to the gills with magnificent actors.
Sadly, many of the newcomers fail to elicit any response other than annoyance. Pattinson's job is simply to stand there and look pretty (a damn fine warm-up for Twilight if there ever was one), while Poesy and Ianevski act like caricatures. Miranda Richardson knows the steps but not the rhythm to muckraking gossip hag Rita Skeeter, and what might have been a nice commentary on the corruption of glamorization of the media is sacrificed in favor of a paper-thin characterization (you can deal with adult themes in kid movies; see Pixar). Roger Lloyd Pack plays Barty Crouch Sr. less on the verge of a breakdown as in the novel as insufferably wild-eyed. I know Gary Oldmans had more practice at playing loopy, but compare his mania in the third film to Pack's mugging and there's just no contest in the crazy department.
Still, despite some terrible dialogue delivered in manners that don't help the matter, Goblet of Fire does a marvelous job of sustaining the excellence of the previous film while adding enough plot back in to make a reasonable and linear narrative. I still prefer Azkaban for its artistry, but Newell should be commended for finding a working blend of the inoffensive popcorn sheen of the first two films with the darker tone and direction of the third.