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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (HD DVD)
When it comes to the Harry Potter movie franchise, viewers tend to divide into two camps. There are fans of the J.K. Rowling books who cherish the first two Chris Columbus films for their word-by-word faithful illustrations of the author's text, regardless of pacing or storytelling faults, and who generally dislike Alfonso Cuarón's third entry for daring to streamline and take liberties with its source material. Then there are those who feel the opposite, who found the Columbus films ponderously dull and pedestrian, and who appreciate Cuarón's vision for making the third chapter into a watchable motion picture. I personally fall into the latter category. For me, not only was The Prisoner of Azkaban a quantum leap improvement over its predecessors, it was a genuinely exciting film in its own right, with a cracking good script and pitch-perfect handling of the characters and their magical escapades. So now we have Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, helmed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco), which I was very much hoping would follow in the third movie's footsteps. Unfortunately for me, though Rowling purists may disagree, I found the fourth picture a major regression for the series, overburdened with plot and stodgy in tone.
Goblet of Fire brings three major life-changing events to our boy wizard hero. While attending the Quidditch World Cup, the greatest event in magical sport, the game is disrupted and Harry nearly killed by an attack of Death Eaters, followers of Lord Voldemort, the evil sorcerer who killed Potter's parents. Later, the boy is inadvertently entered into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a sort of extramural triathlon where he must out-fly a dragon, out-swim mermaids, and navigate a most dangerous hedge maze without getting ground into mulch. Even more frightening than any of those, he'll have to go to the prom, which would involve speaking to a girl and dancing. Will the terrors never cease?
All of the familiar characters from the franchise return for duty: Harry and best friends Ron and Hermione, lovable Hagrid, wise headmaster Dumbledore (once more played by Michael Gambon, who stepped in for the late Richard Harris after the second film), bookish Neville Longbottom, conniving Draco Malfoy, and many others. One of the strengths of the series is its attention to continuity from film to film, with even minor supporting roles filled by the same actors, allowing us to watch the characters evolve and grow. Newly introduced this time out are this year's nutty Defense Against the Dark Arts professor "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson hamming it up gleefully), campus stud Cedric Diggory, as well as Harry's unrequited infatuation Cho Chang. And of course, as any Potter fan knows, the fourth book finally brings us the first appearance of Lord Voldemort himself, here played by a creepy and noseless Ralph Fiennes.
At over 700 pages, Goblet of Fire is one of the longer books in the series. Many fans, including my wife, will tell you that it's their favorite. Something just doesn't carry through to the movie, though. Unlike the third film, the picture lacks a dramatic spark. Where Prisoner of Azkaban was fleet-footed and truly evocative of its magical wonders, Goblet of Fire just plods along from plot-point to plot-point, even its major visual effects sequences having a sense of been-there-done-that about them. Although it's filled with plenty of plot developments, nothing really seems to happen; it feels like a lot of set-up for the next few movies without much of any resolution for its own story points. The big plot twist involving Voldemort's secret accomplice is undercut by the facts that: 1) it's the same plot twist we've gotten in nearly every Potter story, and 2) this one doesn't quite hold up to logical scrutiny when you re-examine all of the character's prior behavior. The revelation is both obvious and completely illogical at the same time.
Newell's direction is too restrained, lacking the flash or urgency that livened up Cuarón's effort. Like Chris Columbus, he seems daunted by the original prose, terrified of changing a word and incurring the wrath of Rowling's fans. Goblet of Fire isn't quite as bad as the Columbus films in that regard, fortunately. If for no other reason than the book's monumental length, Newell and screenwriter Steve Cloves were forced to cut major chunks of it. The Quidditch World Cup, which took up a significant section of the novel, is reduced to a mere few minutes of screen-time. But you get the sense that they really wanted to include every bit of it if they could have. The result plays like a Reader's Digest version of the story, condensed to keep all the major plot developments but remove the important nuance and detail that give it life.
I've spent a lot of time in this review, perhaps too much, wishing that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire could have been more like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I can't help that. Having no compelling attachment to the Rowling books, I write as a film fan who merely wishes for each new picture to be the best movie that it can be. Thus far, only Azkaban has achieved that goal. I wanted more from the fourth film. It's by no means a terrible way to spend two and a half hours, but I can't help believing that it might have been better.
The HD DVD:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released on the HD DVD format by Warner Home Video in the UK back in November of 2006. On this side of the pond, the film's High-Def debut has been delayed, presumably to coincide with the next sequel's home video release at the end of this year. When it does finally make its way to North America, the contents are expected to be identical to this British disc (which in fact even has FBI Anti-Piracy Warning and MPAA rating screens, suggesting that it was originally intended for American distribution).
European HD DVDs are not region-coded and will function in an American HD DVD player. The UK release comes packaged in a keepcase the same height and width as American HD DVDs, but with a spine thickness more like a standard DVD. The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can happily be skipped but is a nuisance. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Goblet of Fire HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
When the film was released on the DVD format back in early 2006, it was largely criticized for lousy video quality. That Standard Definition disc looked rather murky and had some distracting compression problems. The HD DVD is thankfully a big improvement, though still not without some issues.
The opening couple of shots, which involve a CGI snake slithering around at night, have disconcertingly elevated and milky black levels. Things improve as the scene progresses, but are still pretty iffy for a while. Honestly, matters of contrast and shadow detail are erratic throughout most of the movie, sometimes exhibiting very good range and depth, but other times looking disappointingly flat and dull. With that said, at its best the transfer has terrific sharpness and detail, and during bright scenes things usually look great. The Yule Ball is a particular visual highlight. Some of the scenes with extensive visual effects have been intentionally softened to blend the CGI better, but overall this is a fine-looking and often impressive disc.
The Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats, and there's little to fault here. This is an excellent sound mix with crystal clear dialogue, crisp sound effects, and plenty of directional surround activity. It's loud, immersive, and features plenty of thundering bass during the Quidditch tournament and Harry's match with the fire-breathing dragon. The soundtrack, especially the lossless option, is sure to please.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - Spanish or Quebecois French DD 5.1.
With the obvious exception of the In-Movie Experience interactive feature, most of the supplements on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the DVD edition. Sadly, a lot of it is kid-friendly fluff.
- In-Movie Experience - The picture-in-picture video guide to the making of the film is hosted by Oliver and James Phelps, the actors who played the Weasley twins. The boys mostly joke around and make wisecracks about every scene that they appear in. Interspersed between these bits are talking-head interviews and other segments concerning the story, characters, actors, visual effects, music, set design, and other elements of the production. The video material usually jumps on and off the screen quickly, and there are many long gaps between segments. Mercifully, Warner has authored the disc so that you can skip to each new piece using the directional arrows on the remote control. Doing so, you can skim all the way through the movie in under an hour.
- Harry vs. the Horntail: The First Task (6 min., SD) - A breakdown of the first Tri-Wizard Tournament challenge, mostly focused on the design of the computer-animated dragon.
- In Too Deep: The Second Task (10 min., SD) - A look at the filming of the underwater sequence, which was accomplished with a mixture of water tank footage and CGI.
- The Maze: The Third Task (7 min., SD) - Discussion of how the hedge maze was designed and built.
- Meet the Champions (13 min., SD) - Fluffy video diaries from the actors who played the Fleur Delacour, Viktor Krum, and Cedric Diggory characters.
- He Who Must Not Be Named (11 min., SD) - The challenge of bringing Voldemort to life through costume, makeup, visual effects, and of course Ralph Fiennes, who comes across as an exceedingly strange fellow.
- Preparing the Yule Ball (9 min., SD) - Staging and prep of the prom scene. How the dance choreography, costumes, set design, and performances were used to capture a most awkward teenage experience.
- Conversations with the Cast (31 min., HD) - The most substantive feature on the disc, this Q&A session with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint is hosted by Richard Curtis (Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter and director of Love Actually). Curtis asks some insightful questions about the making of a big-budget movie, and also moderates questions from contest-winning fans.
- Reflections of the Fourth Film (14 min., SD) - The cast look back on their experience growing up together through the series, the rapport they've built, and introducing new characters. We also get a look at Newell directing on set.
- Additional Scenes (10 min., SD) - The Hogwart's school song, some dating silliness, more Mad Eye Moody screen time, character moments, and an extended Yule Ball music video sequence that no one could have possibly expected to make it to the final cut.
- Theatrical Trailer (1 min., SD).
I was hoping for more from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Despite my reservations about the movie, the HD DVD from the UK has very nice picture, sound, and the neat In-Movie Experience feature. Even if I didn't love the film, all of the Potter movies have enough positive elements to still merit a recommendation. This disc will surely make its way to American shores later in the year, but for those Potter fanatics who just can't wait, the Goblet of Fire import is worth a purchase.