Potential is a fantastic thing, but it can be a double edged sword.
Up until this point the Potter series have been thriving on pure potential. Why so many of Lost’s fans turned so viciously on it is because the series seemed like five seasons of potential and one of pay off. Goblet Of Fire is the installment in which Rowling finally shows her hand and to my mind she pulls it off wonderfully.
Mortality, which would become the series’ central preoccupation, rears its ugly head here and the threats which had been building abstractly around Rowling’s cozy world became startlingly concrete. And I think it’s these threats, just as much as her hominess that give the series such a juice. Voldemort and his Death Eater’s have always been a much more substantial villain than your usual children’s book (or for that matter fantasy) Big Bad. Here’s what Drew McWeeny had to say in his take on The Deathly Hallows.
After all, this is a series about the battle between a philosophy of racial purity and one of inclusion, and that disturbing subtext is made clear again in this film. The result, for me at least, is that the bad guys in this series are genuinely upsetting and not just generic action movie bad guys. One of the things that I grow weary of in movies is the idea of "saving the world" because it seems like such a ridiculous easy thing to say, but such a hard thing to actually define. I have a hard time understanding why any villain would hope to destroy the world or end the world. There's nothing in it for them, no goal that makes sense. With these films, the goal is reshaping the world into a place where wizards and witches live in a superior position to the plain and boring Muggles, where magic gives them an advantage and where blood defines your place in the world. It's believable, and it's awful,
And it’s that real sense of menace that makes the novels relatable. It seems to me that the battle in Harry Potter is less about Good and Evil in the Cosmic capitalized sense, but between those who are decent and those who are not. The scene in which Mr. Weasly, who though befuddled and eccentric remains perhaps the most decent character in the Potter universe, doesn’t allow Harry to leave until he has made Dursely say goodbye, becomes as much a battle between the forces of good and evil as Harry’s final duel against Voldemort. The series has always seemed so English to me in the sense that like The Lord Of The Rings it is at the end not a battle for glory, but rather a battle in defense of coziness. The Good character’s fight in Harry Potter, to defend not lofty ideals, but the simple things, the hearth and the home, the library, and the kitchen.
It’s decency not morality with which Rowling ultimately paints her conflict, its why someone like Crouch is able to painted so wrong despite being on the right side and why for all the fantastical elements Rowling’s universe always firmly resembled our own.
And it’s really kind of amazing just how little of this Newell makes of any of this. If Columbus’s work was inelegant then Newell’s is out and out clumsy.
Mike Newell is of course the owner of one of the most half assed careers in Hollywood. And if upon revisiting I think the film he made here was actually worse then the Columbus ones. Which though poor at least were coming from source material that is at it’s core, children’s books, charming though they may be. Here Rowling has stepped up her game and Newell has not followed.
There’s hardly an element in the work that’s not problematic. After Cuaron teased more naturalistic performances from them in Azkaban, the young cast here has backslid. Mightily. Everyone is playing broad here, even some of the older cast, Gambon hits his nadir playing Dumbledore drunker and surlier then Rooster Cogburn. All exposition and plot machinations are startlingly inelegant. The perfunctory checklist nature of the films also intensifies under Newell’s watch. Also backsliding the films imagery, after Cuaron’s elegant eye it’s more noticeable then ever when a director knows nothing to do with this world then point a camera at it and shrug.
Occasionally all these disparate bad elements combine (take the rival school’s entry to the Hogwarts Hall). In which Dumbledore stands up, slurs his way through about a minute of explanation of whom these people are and what they’re doing here only to have these ill defined characters storm in and perform with some startlingly bad CGI. Then we’re off to the next scene.
Like the film’s of Columbus the film is partially redeemed through spot on casting, In this case a spot on Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, whose casting is frankly ideal. He’s an actor who can embody the contrasting elements that make Voldemort such a compelling villain; the aristocratic hauteur, warped intelligence, core of cowardice and genuinely twisted core.
So credit Newell with this, he did like Columbus before him at least gather the elements, thankfully someone who knew how to make better use of them was coming.