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‘Goblet’ is one of the better Potter flicks

Mike Newell’s film is darker and richer than those that preceded it

Will “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” No. 4 in the series based on J.K. Rowling’s books, continue the series’ downward spiral at the box office? The new movie is darker and richer than earlier installments, and some are already calling it the best of the quartet (I'd call it a toss-up between No. 3 and No. 4), but that doesn’t seem to mean much commercially.

So far, most critics and fans would agree, every Harry Potter movie has been better than the last one. Statistics, however, suggest a disconnect.

The first one, “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone,” released in 2001, grossed $317 million in the United States. No. 2, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” released in 2002, made $261 million. The third and most acclaimed entry, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” released in 2004, grossed “only” $249 million.

All were immensely successful, of course, and they collected many more millions overseas, where the studios now make most of their money on theatrical releases. Yet the pattern holds there as well: No. 1 is far and away the biggie, with a combined domestic/overseas gross approaching $1 billion, while No. 2 trails and No. 3 is nearly $200 million behind No. 1.

It does seem that the more inventive and interesting the adaptations are, the more audiences dwindle. This is not always the way sequels and series work. Compare the Harry Potter record, for instance, with the “Lord of the Rings” series, which increased its audience with each new film, and the original James Bond series, which began quite modestly with “Dr. No” and hit blockbuster status only with No. 3, “Goldfinger.”

That downward pattern could end with the release of “Goblet of Fire,” which comes at the midway point in Rowling’s six-book collection and offers a unique showdown between Potter and the series’ chief villain, Voldemort, or “He Who Must Not Be Named.” He’s played by a heavily made-up, gleefully monstrous Ralph Fiennes, whose nose has been flattened and turned into two slits.

Almost a horror filmThe first Potter movie to carry a PG-13 rating (for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images”), “Goblet of Fire” is almost a horror film. It begins in darkness, with a shadowy Warner Bros. logo accompanied by Patrick Doyle’s ominous music and the sight of a large writhing snake. The sequence turns out to be one installment in a recurring nightmare that leaves Potter sweaty and scared. It’s also the first indication that Voldemort is not going to leave him alone.

But we’ll get back to that later, Steve Kloves’ script seems to be saying. A veteran of the series, he has boiled down 734 pages of Rowling’s book to a reasonably streamlined storyline that moves smoothly from wizard contests to teenage spats to a confrontation with the creature who killed Harry’s parents.

The producers have kept most of the cast from the previous entries, but they’ve introduced a new director: Mike Newell, who made “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco.” The first British filmmaker to tackle “Harry Potter,” he’s not as visually creative as Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron, who handled No. 3, but he’s never as stodgy as Chris Columbus, who directed the first two installments.

Perhaps best of all, he never fears making his child actors look awkward. They (and the characters they’re playing) have now reached adolescence, and they’re constantly sending off mixed messages. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) may accidentally dribble water down his chin at lunch, and his best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) may stage a hissy fit (“Piss off,” he tells Harry at one point), but they’re also near-adults who are capable of transcendence.

“I love magic,” says Harry at a particularly delirious and unguarded moment.

Puberty also drives and confuses Hermione (Emma Watson), their pal from the earlier installments. After spending much of the movie in their shadow, she shames them into noticing her by accepting a date from someone else at a wizards’ rock n’ roll prom called the Yule Ball.

Also returning are Maggie Smith as professor Minerva McGonagall, who frets elegantly about the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; Alan Rickman as professor Severus Snape, who prefers to keep Harry and Ron in line at Hogwarts by banging books on their heads; and Michael Gambon as grandfatherly Professor Dumbledore. Gary Oldman’s Sirius turns up this time as the voice of animated ashes in a fireplace.

In addition to Fiennes, the additions to the cast include Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody, a teacher whose roving, bulging eye suggests too much comfort with the dark side, and Miranda Richardson (Newell’s discovery from “Dance With a Stranger” 20 years ago) as Rita Skeeter, a gossipy reporter who rarely lets the facts stand in her way.

Much of the action takes place at the Triwizard Tournament, where Harry does gravity-defying battle with a fire-breathing dragon, tries to navigate a maze and visits the bottom of a very chilly-looking lake. The flying sequences and the underwater episodes are especially exciting, thanks to computer-generated special effects that create a world that seems simultaneously solid and unreal.

Nothing really looks like this, but as a fantasy landscape it’s irresistible. Cinematographer Roger Pratt, who specializes in dreamy darkness (he earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for 1999’s “End of the Affair”), again demonstrates his artistry.

The filmmakers once considered splitting “Goblet of Fire” into two movies, instead of ramming all that plot into the single 157-minute film they finally produced. Sometimes the strain shows, especially in the handling of unfamiliar faces in supporting roles.

Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattison) is initially treated as a major character, and certainly he is meant to play a crucial role in the finale. Harry has a crush on Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and Hermione flirts with Bulgarian tournament contestant Viktor Krum (Stanislaw Ianevski). None of them has enough screen time to make much of an impression. Other characters have been eliminated entirely.

But Newell and Kloves needed to cut somewhere, and they’ve kept the focus on the characters that matter most. The result is a movie that will pack kiddie matinees and could draw an older audience as well.