Harry Potter is more than everyone's favorite boy wizard -- he's a cultural phenomenon of unmatched proportions. The original book series by J. K. Rowling has sold over 325 million copies worldwide, spawning the film series, at least five video games and over 400 other Harry Potter-branded products. The film franchise itself ranks as highest grossing book-to-film series of all time, having earned (as of this writing) $3.5 billion worldwide, beating even The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (which has grossed $2.9 billion). If that's not magic, I don't know what is.
This fourth film in the series finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) inadvertently selected to be a competitor in the Tri-Wizard tournament, a dangerous competition usually reserved for older students. Challengers arrive from other academies across the globe, while budding love seems to spring up at every turn, with Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) all stumbling through the awkwardness of adolescence to sweet and sympathy-inducing results. But pulsing in the background is the ever-felt presence of evil on the rise. Conspirators have finally manipulated events to re-open the world to Voldemort -- a staple, unseen villain in the series, responsible for the deaths of Harry's parents and the scar across his forehead.
As always, the most engaging aspect of this fourth film in the series is the absolute pitch-perfect casting of each character. The actors all bring their own personalities to the table and deliver performances that capture the nuances and mild complexity of well-developed children's book characters. The three teenage leads ground themselves in realistic emotions, despite all of the underlying magical shenanigans. Each one rings true as a teen lost in a world where they're unable to express their feelings for fear of rejection. The supporting cast is also top notch, although most of the players appear to hit one note in the plot before being whisked off into the background. For people who haven't seen the other films, the barrage of literally hundreds of characters may be daunting, as the pace of the film doesn't leave much room for introductions or recaps.
Thematically, the kids at Hogwarts have certainly grown up. There's a cynicism and foreboding doom hovering over every head, which really helps to build pressure in the plot. Voldemort is such an impending black hole in every character's life that his eventual appearance is seeped with an impressive sense of doom. Of course, the excellent Ralph Fiennes has a big hand in this, managing to craft a fierce hatred behind his bulging eyes.
Overall, I enjoyed the dark tone of this film -- it certainly makes the series a bit more accessible for adult audiences. But like 'Prisoner of Azkaban,' it doesn't mesh perfectly with the film's more kiddie-fare elements. For every tense moment where Harry fights a dragon or a swarm of underwater creatures, there's a counter-moment with comical glimpses of image-shifting badges, colorful smoke trails, and slapstick consequences to the misuse of magic. I understand these are key components of this fictional universe and fan favorite scenes from the books, but the result is a film that feels conflicted about its identity. It retains the things that made the earlier installments soft and whimsical, but adds in so much darkness that there seem to be two completely different tones fighting for dominance.
Having said that, I loved the Tri-Wizard tournament scenes (the horntail, the demonic mermaids, the hedge maze), quieter developments with Harry's awkward pursuit of love, and the sudden encounter with Voldemort. I was enthralled when Harry was put through the paces, and I found myself leaning forward whenever the film drifted away from dances, popularity contests, and high school antics. There's a kinetic energy to the emotionally and physically harsh moments, and happily for me, these are more prevalent in 'Goblet of Fire' than ever before.
In short, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' is my favorite installment in the series -- there are some amazing scenes here that truly thrilled me. And while I found the film's inconsistent themes and lack of focus distracting at times, fans of the series will likely vibrate in their seats at every turn as they enjoy its particular blend of darkness and whimsy.
The HD DVD edition of 'Goblet of Fire' is presented with a crisp 1080p/VC-1 transfer (identical to the Blu-ray) that showcases every pebble and crack the film has to offer. While it isn't quite as jaw-dropping as ' Order of the Phoenix,' it looks a hair better than 'Prisoner of Azkaban,' tops 'Chamber of Secrets,' and easily outclasses 'Sorcerer's Stone.' By further comparison, it makes the standard-def 'Goblet of Fire' DVD an absolute waste of shelf space.
Black levels are solid, colors are vibrant, texture detail is astounding, and the naturalistic CG creations are gorgeous. One look at a scene like Dumbledore's opening speech will leave you marveling at the tiny candles, the intricate weaving of the costumes, and the elemental detailing of rain, stars, and rocks. Then there's the battle with the horntail dragon, where leathery wings, crumbling stone, wood and rock at the base of the stadium are all on vibrant display -- I could go on and on for pages just talking about the technical treats in this scene alone.
The source is pristine -- there's no artifacting, noise, or problematic crush visible. Some of the film's more colorful CG looks a bit more artificial in high-def than it does in standard definition, but I was surprised to find that other CG effects actually looked more believable. The horntail, the underwater squid creatures, and the exterior shots of the school have a big impact and inject a welcome earthiness into the illusion. Shots of Hogwarts look phenomenal (especially the long tracking shot leading to the Owlery tower) -- if you so desired, you could count every brick on every building.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to review the UK import HD DVD (which was originally released in November of 2006), where I complained about clarity and contrast inconsistencies that appeared in a few major scenes. While I no longer have the UK disc on hand to do a side-by-side comparison, this release appears to fix the majority of the problems I had with the import. Darker scenes are still a bit soft compared to brighter exterior shots, but it's a negligible difference that doesn't undermine the showcase scenes in the transfer. All in all, 'Goblet of Fire' looks remarkable in its stateside high-def debut, falling just shy of a five-star video rating.
Warner Home Video has really stepped up its game in the audio department with its 'Harry Potter' high-def releases. While the majority of the studio's previous HD DVD discs have only had standard Dolby Digital Plus tracks (at 640 kbps), each entry in the 'Potter' series features what amounts to a staggering upgrade. Hitting the sound-for-sound intensity of 'Order of the Phoenix,' 'Goblet of Fire' includes a powerful Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/16-Bit/1.8 Mbps) that makes Harry's trials sound more treacherous than ever.
It doesn't take a trained ear to notice the deep bass, crisp dialogue, and the other immersive qualities of this TrueHD mix. The effects and music are nicely prioritized throughout each channel -- the rear speakers are brimming with activity, adding subtle ambiance to quiet scenes, and chaotic clutter to the more tense battle scenes. More importantly, an aggressive LFE presence keeps the track dynamic with booming bass tones that hit me in the chest before my ears even registered the impact. Between the lush score, the constant barrage of magic blasts, and shouts from every character, the soundfield could easily be feel crowded, but the sound designers meld everything together as it should be and I never lost a line of dialogue -- even when characters were barely whispering. For a movie boasting such fantastical heights, the sound package helps to ground each effect so things are never reminiscent of an over-the-top video game.
The one thing that keeps 'Goblet of Fire' from reaching the audible heights of 'Order of the Phoenix' is a pesky leveling issue. In scenes like the horntail battle, everything rings at the same volume -- crashing rocks, flapping wings, and the roar of the dragon are blared from every channel. The effect is meant to stir the listener, but the increased response to the noise comes at the expense of authenticity. This all-encompassing peak level isn't a technical fault -- I have no desire to hear things at their actual volume in comparison to dialogue -- but the end result in 'Goblet of Fire' feels a bit unimaginative. In other fantasy films like 'Lord of the Rings' and the 'Star Wars' prequels, the designers allow heavy moments to rest on the shoulders of the subwoofer so vibration provides as much impact as multi-channel volume. It's a minor nitpick to be sure, but one I noticed regardless.
All, quibbles aside, fans will be extremely pleased to hear how good 'Goblet of Fire' sounds on this high definition release. This HD DVD disc continues to put the technical presentation of the standard DVD to shame.
Warner may have brought out the big guns with the audio and video on this HD DVD edition of 'Goblet of Fire,', but the supplemental package offers no such upgrades, simply porting over all of the supplements (minus an interactive trivia game and a videogame trailer) that appeared on the Special Edition DVD. The making-of material is divided into eight well-organized sections that avoid repetition and cover everything a fan could want to know.
'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' is another fine high-def release in the fan-favorite series. The film itself is easily my favorite of the 'Potter' films and I enjoyed watching it again. This high-def edition of the flick boasts a stunning transfer, a bold TrueHD mix and a decent collection of supplements. Even better, Warner has included an exclusive "In-Movie Experience" that's exclusive to this HD DVD edition, giving it a leg up on its Blu-ray counterpart. An easy recommend all around.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.