The film version of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth in J.K. Rowling's series of novels about the education of a young British wizard, starts out presuming that little or no introduction is needed to its characters or its context.
Even if you are acquainted with Rowling's books and the movies spawned by their phenomenal global popularity, "Goblet of Fire" wastes no time letting you know that the relatively playful fancy of the earlier stories is fading away.
As with the book, the movie opens with a vision of murder that's literally nightmarish: In an instant after somebody's killed, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) wakes up.And this time around, he's not with the Dursleys, his grotesque guardians, but with his closest school friends, brainy Hermione (Emma Watson) and baffled Ron (Rupert Grint), on a summer trip to Dover's White Cliffs with the Weasley family to watch the Quidditch World Cup match. The trip turns ugly when Death Eaters summoned by the evil Lord Voldemort (aka "You-Know-Who") lay waste to the wizards' camp site.
What's Quidditch? Who's Voldemort? Who are the Weasleys? If you don't immediately know the answer to these questions, "Goblet of Fire" will leave you little time to find the answers. This is, after all, an adaptation of one of Rowling's fatter installments of the Potter saga and there's a lot of stuff toget to.
First up is Hogwarts School, whose avuncular professor in chief Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) proclaims the start of the Triwizard Tournament. This is a contest in which a student from Hogwarts and one from two foreign schools are picked by the eponymous goblet to compete in a rigorous, perilous series of tasks for a coveted prize.
Somehow a fourth competitor's name emerges unbidden from the enchanted cup. And even if you haven't read the books, you somehow know that Harry Potter is the surprise - and surprised - addition.
For the rest of the school year, poor Harry not only has to contend with ferocious dragons, complicated riddles and malicious gossip from tabloid diva Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), he has to deal with Ron's jealousy over Harry's selection and figure out which girl to ask to Hogwarts' annual Christmas ball.
And if all that weren't enough, both Harry and grizzled demon chaser Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) suspect that Harry's insertion into the Triwizard match is part of a scheme by Voldemort to finish the job he started when he murdered Harry's parents.
As crowded with narrative detail as this all suggests, "Goblet of Fire" will still have Potter aficionados chattering about what's been left out. Still, director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") and screenwriter Steve Kloves maintain a steady, engrossing flow in what could have been an unwieldy mix.
The effects are both more elaborate and more enchanting. Radcliffe is literally and figuratively growing into his role, while Watson shows greater fire and depth. And Grint's rubbery charm is intact.
(3 STARS) HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (PG-13). You don't have to have read the books or seen the previous movies to get absorbed in this latest, darkest installment of the Hogwarts chronicles. (But it might help.) Harry, Hermione and Ron enter their teen years and find sharper mood swings and deepening peril. Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are among the returnees. Newcomers include Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes as You-Know-Who. 2:37 (violence, mild vulgarisms, some scary sequences may be too intense for small children). At area theaters.