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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 

Mark Palermo on Harry Potter and Zathura.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire isn’t notably worse than its predecessors. It’s just harder to put up with at this point. Director Mike Newell keeps up the vendor’s manifesto adhered to by Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron: “Give JK Rowling’s readers what they want. Make sure the movie is excessively long so people won’t flock to message boards whining about too many things we left out. You can go sort of dark, just don’t get creative with the tone.”

Pointing out that Goblet of Fire is marginally worse than the last Harry Potter film and marginally better than the first two isn’t saying much in absolute terms. The story advances but the experience remains the same.

It’s revealing of how stagnantly familiar this series has become that when Goblet of Fire turns into a Dawson’s Creek episode — during a thread about the Hogwarts school dance — it’s a breath of fresh air. That storyline permits the 14-year-old characters to break from their all-consuming scholastic interests by making comments like, “He’s not particularly loquacious.”

It also gives Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) an Asian object of affection in Cho Chang (Katie Leung), a move that at first feels like tokenism. But then she turns him down, and it’s back to the unchecked view of genetic entitlement.

Rowling’s novels have captured a lot of people, and the movies may do justice to the events. Despite the skill and spectacle of the special effects, the prosaic storytelling of the Potter movies is never interesting as cinema.

Zathura

Both Harry Potter and the kids’ movie Zathura suffer a thin “next level, new conquest” reliance. As Potter’s adventure reaches its climax, the danger escalates — the wizard is eventually faced with the task of finding his way through an enormous hedge maze that wants to kill him.

But Zathura, through its board game device, is at least honest about its episodic nature. Writers David Koepp and John Kamps and director Jon Favreau (Swingers) adapt Chris Van Allsburg’s book with a grasp on the simple pleasures in imaginative play. Unconcerned with Harry Potter’s despairing promotion of capitalist advancement (if you happen to be born a wizard, you can compete), it’s fantasy moviemaking of kid-sized dreaming.

For awhile at least, it looks like the making of something special. Two brothers, Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and younger Danny (Jonah Bobo), are left alone while their single father (Tim Robbins) is at a business meeting and their sister (Kristen Stewart) sleeps through babysitting duties. Danny still wants to be friends with his brother, who has recently replaced childish play with pre-adolescent posturing. The family dynamic has some of the unsparing verbal nastiness of Koepp’s War of the Worlds script, and indeed Zathura’s fantastic-hits-the-familiar scenario feels closer to a Spielberg production than the Spielberg-produced Legend of Zorro.

As the bickering duo dig up an old wind-up board game, they find it’s not so easy to put away. After one move on the board, their house is bombarded with meteors. This is the beginning stage of what’s essentially a twist on haunted house movies — but the horror aspect is replaced by space fantasy. It’s also the point where Zathura begins to cheapen. Every board move brings some crazy cosmic event, so the specifics become incidental. There’s also barely adequate explanation of what the goal of this game is.

Toward the end, the movie remembers that fantasy works best as an abstraction of reality—the monsters and effects are sibling dysfunction externalized. The middle act is lazy, but Zathura’s the blueprint for a great kid-adventure. For a chunk of the time, it looks like the genuine article.

The genuine article: palermo@thecoast.ca.

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