Alas, poor Harry Potter, seemingly destined for greatness but almost always aiming too low, or at least hitting too low, despite whatever intent there might have been in the aiming process. They say that the third time's the charm, and for the Potter series, that was definitely true, as Prisoner of Azkaban was damn close to a perfect adventure/mystery film. So far, they haven't managed to hit that height a second time.
The way that the wizarding world has responded to the return of Lord Voldemort in Goblet of Fire is simultaneously interesting and frustrating. First, the interesting: Faced with the reappearance of their deadliest foe, the Ministry of Magic elects to plug its collective ears and shout "I can't hear you," all but officially adopting a policy of "blame the messenger." Harry is dismissed as a liar and made a scapegoat to fuel the Ministry's strident insistence on not dealing with the real threat, the classic political strategy of inventing an easily-solved problem so as to avoid dealing with the actual issues. Heroic wizard extraordinare Albus Dumbledore is looked upon with suspicion, his motives defined as suspect in order to frame a potential threat that seems more manageable. All practical magic instruction at Hogwarts School is replaced by a purely theoretical curriculum at the bidding of Ministry toady Dolores Umbridge, justified by insinuations that Dumbledore is planning to use the students in order to consolidate his power. In a perfect example of self-fulfilling prophecy, the students begin training their magical skills on their own under the moniker of Dumbledore's Army, an example of teenage defiance that's well-meant but only confirms the Ministry's worst fears. Whether or not author JK Rowling meant it to be a commentary on then-current real-world politics, the fact remains that Order of the Phoenix is the most overtly political story in the series thus far, bringing words of caution that the enemy that comes from within can be just as dangerous (and often harder to spot) as an external foe. Simply claiming to be doing good and meaning well isn't the same as actually being good.
Alas, there's that frustrating side. A thoroughly British villain if ever there was one, the Thatcherite nanny monster Dolores Umbridge is a character who serves one purpose only: to make us loathe her so we can ultimately cheer when well-deserved comeuppance arrives. Much like Harry's aunt and uncle, there's nary a hint of ambiguity in her character. While all films manipulate the audience in various ways, manipulation this overt I find to be distracting and off-putting. Additionally, it's frankly frustrating watching Harry declining to openly stand up for himself under her watch; he's faced far scarier threats than this insipid, pink-wrapped conservative PTA mom before; why does he put up with treatment he and we know he doesn't deserve? There's also the sense that the series is spinning its wheels at this point, injecting the Ministry's denials of danger as a mechanism for not having to advance the plot more than a hair. Much like the last film, nothing that contributes to the broader story arc occurs until the end of the final act. There's some nice character moments between Harry and his godfather, played by the always superb Gary Oldman, but Oldman's Sirius Black doesn't get the screen time he deserves. Brendan Gleeson, moreover, is criminally wasted this go-around, after delivering my favorite performance of the entire series in the previous installment.
The Cliff-notes feel of the fourth film can be felt even more obviously here than before, as the longest book in the series yet adapted becomes the shortest movie in the series yet produced. Goblet of Fire's final confrontation outed Lucius Malfoy as an active collaborator of Voldemort's, yet Harry, the only surviving witness to this fact, seems not to have bothered to tell anyone. Early in the film, we meet a woman with shifting hair color who is part of the old anti-Voldemort brigade The Order of the Phoenix, who angrily insists that she not be called "Nymphadora." Over two hours subsequent, I'm no clearer on who the fuck this person is, or even if her name is in fact Nymphadora. If you've never read the books, which I haven't, you could blink and miss the fact that Sirius Black's nickname is "Padfoot," a detail which becomes important late in the story. And so forth. While tonally this film is far closer to what I'd prefer a Harry Potter film to be, i.e. not a two-and-a-half-hour race through a candy shop, the strategy of cramming longer tomes into shorter films isn't serving structure or comprehension very well. Take Lucius Malfoy again; his status at the end of the film is never mentioned, when it seems clear that it should have been. Impressionism in art can be interesting, but in something as plot-centric as Harry Potter, providing only a general impression of the story undermines its aspirations.
-review by Matt Murray