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In these post-Thatcher times, the closest thing the British theater has to a welfare program is the Harry Potter movies. Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, Julie Walters, John Hurt, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis… One by one, the crème anglaise of the acting world has been brought to the drafty halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, forced to utter a few lines before a blue screen, and handed a big fat paycheck on the way out the door, each secure in the knowledge that he will be richer and more dubiously famous than ever could have been imagined.

It’s safe to say, for instance, that the extraordinary Fiona Shaw will go down not as the most scabrous Medea of our or any generation but as Harry Potter’s hysterically Oedipal aunt, Mrs. Dursley. As for Maggie Smith, well, a great and remarkable career is now being funneled into the sphincterish puss of Professor Minerva McGonagall, Hogwarts’ No. 2. I picture Smith wrapping the last scene of the new Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, whipping off her peaked witch’s hat, and bellowing, “Darling, help me out of these fucking robes! Yes, and call my agent and tell him I want a Chekhov play pronto. It doesn’t matter—anywhere on the West End. Just no goddamn wands!”

What can Smith do—what can any of us do—against the Dementor-like thrall of the Harry Potter franchise? Best to let ourselves be transfigured as much as we can. And if we’re lovers of the printed word, we can at least rejoice that this is pre-eminently a literary enterprise, the movies being nothing more than second-generation stand-ins for the rapturously awaited books. (The James Bond pics, by contrast, long ago severed their umbilical cord to the Ian Fleming novels.) I attended Goblet of Fire with a 10-year-old girl whose comprehension of J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus is comparable to Maimonides’ grasp of the Torah. Her every watching minute was spent mapping the movie against its ur-text. Where, she wanted to know, was SPEW? Where was Mrs. Weasley? Where was Percy? And that whole Stanley Kramer–ish subplot about Madame Maxime’s coming to terms with her gianthood—what, my companion wanted to know, had happened to that?

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All missing—and somehow not really missed, at least not any more than Barty Crouch’s mad scene was missed or the latest variation of the Dursleys’ harshing on Harry was missed. Which may prove that Rowling’s fourth Potter installment was, in fact, just what some of us suspected: too long for its own good. Apologists attribute the book’s door-stopping 734 pages to the author’s gathering architectonic purpose; I’m more inclined to blame her hypertrophic imagination. Portkeys, Wizard Wheezes, Pensieves, Hungarian Horntails, Avada Kedavra curses, galleons rising from water, horses descending from clouds—Rowling, far from being cowed by the pressure of meeting public demand, seems to be excited to new heights of creation, which in turn demand fresh layers of exposition.

A more earth-anchored writer might have been content just to enroll Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in the Triwizard Tournament alongside three other up-and-comers of the magic world. Rowling insists on putting them through chivalric tests that would have tried the patience of a Grail-seeker: snatching golden eggs from grumpy dragons, negotiating an underwater slalom course of clinging merpeople, crawling through a mobile and latently hostile maze populated by giant spiders and Blast-Ended Skrewts, weathering an unscheduled meet-and-greet with Voldemort, the resurgent monarch of evil played by Ralph Fiennes in a state of decomposition somewhere between middle and late English Patient. (But forget You-Know-Who for a moment: When is someone going to introduce that peroxide queen Draco Malfoy (Tom Fenton) to his Lavender Lord?)

Good etymologist that you are, you’ve already asked yourself: A Triwizard Tournament with four wizards? And who the hell was it who let Harry in anyway? Crouch (Roger Lloyd Pack), the melancholy, mustachioed minister of magic? Recovering Death Eater and Bela Karolyi wannabe Igor Karkaroff (Pedja Bjelac)? Or Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson), hobbled veteran of the Wizarding Wars and bearer of a scorched-earth face and jumping-bean iris?

But then again, whom am I kidding? At this point, you want to know only how Goblet of Fire stacks up against its big-screen predecessors. In brief: It’s better than Chris Columbus’ Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, but not quite so good as Alfonso Cuarón’s darkly lyrical Prisoner of Azkaban.

Cuarón, of course, had the poetic chutzpah to become Rowling’s first-ever cinematic collaborator. Mike Newell, the latest helmsman, falls more in the Columbus realm of devoted vassal. Loyalty has its uses, and Newell, with the help of Steve Kloves’ judiciously streamlined script, faithfully replicates both the strengths and the weaknesses of Rowling’s work. In the first category may be placed such wittily conceived details as the independently operating quill of gossip queen Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson). In the second must go the unwitty Rita herself, another of Rowling’s comic creations who fails to raise much of a snort onscreen. (Highest marks, however, for Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape, who continues to become more drolly minimalist with each new film.)

Rowling’s senses of character and dialogue are strictly rudimentary; it’s the fertility of her invention that sets her apart. Whenever Newell finds a filmic equivalent to that—say, a ripsnorting dragon battle that might have sprung fully formed from the head of Ray Harryhausen—Goblet of Fire mutates into something rich. Now and then it even gives us the stuff of dreams and nightmares: the face of Harry’s protector, Sirius Black (Oldman), rising through a hearth of smoldering ashes, human hostages dangling like dead fishermen among the merpeople.

If only we didn’t have old Dumbledore (Gambon) tying it up for us with an allegorical ribbon: “Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” What’s right about the Harry Potter series is its easiness—its suggestion that even the most extreme forms of magic can be absorbed into the real world of understaffed bureaucracies and school systems that favor athletics over academics. Ensconced in such domesticity, we can study the progress of Harry and his mates the way we watch our friends’ kids. Look! Radcliffe is finally growing into those handsome blue-gray eyes! And doesn’t Emma Watson’s Hermione get lovelier with each passing year? But oh! What agency of Eros could ever tie her to Rupert Grint’s whey-cheeked Ron? Savor them now, Muggles: Before you know it, they’ll be all growed up. CP