Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Do the parents of the wizarding world know that when they send their children to Hogwarts, there is a chance little Johnny or Susie will be eaten by a dragon as part of an intermural sport? Just thinking of all the permission slips and liability waivers necessary to hold the Tri-Wizard Tournament gives me a headache.

But I’m ahead of myself already. The Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which Hogwarts hosts two other schools for a year-long competition, gives “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” its basic framework, but it’s the side plots and set pieces that flesh it out into a fully realized film. It’s nearly as epic in its scope and deep in its philosophy as the “Lord of the Rings” films were — the first film in this series to even approach such heights.

And what fun it is, too! In his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself entered, against his wishes, as a champion in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, competing against fellow Hogwarts stalwart Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), Slavic brooder Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) and French lovely Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy). Daily classes take a backseat — a lot of elements of the Harry Potter universe take a backseat in this film, adapted as it was (by screenwriter Steve Kloves) from J.K. Rowling’s massive 734-page novel — so that attention may be paid to the tournament’s three stages, which occur a few months apart over the course of the school year.

Harry is a reluctant hero, as usual, and he barely has time to strategize before each competition, what with the day-to-day pressures of having a crush on Cho Chang (Katie Leung) and having to ask someone to the yule ball. He has a spat with his best pal Ron (Rupert Grint), too, though it’s not clear what it’s about or why it lasts so long. No time to explain everything; we gotta keep things moving here. We only have 2 1/2 hours to cover 734 pages of material! (Poor Hermione, played by Emma Watson, has so little to do here, her subplot about helping liberate the house elves having been eliminated. She does have a few smashing moments at the ball, though, as the date of Viktor Krum.)

The usual villains of Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Snape (Alan Rickman) fade into the background in this episode, barely giving Harry a moment’s trouble. Our attention is turned, as usual, to the guest stars, in particular Brendan Gleeson as three-quarters-crazy Mad Eye Moody, the new Dark Arts instructor. Gleeson gives the character, who is a good guy with fanatical tendencies, an intense, over-the-top spin, so unpredictable in his behavior as to be both funny and scary. (At one point, Prof. McGonagal is obliged to remind him that “we never use Transfiguration as a punishment.”)

The sharply thrilling action scenes, mostly centered around the tournament, are first-rate, as raucously executed as anything we’ve seen in the series. But director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Donnie Brasco”) wisely avoids letting the darkness of the tournament and the impending doom suggested by Lord Voldemort’s imminent return overtake the film completely. In the middle, there’s the yule ball, which comprises several scenes dealing with nothing more than typical teen angst, no magic required. These are light and funny, a perfect palate-cleanser before we head back into the fray.

It is a fray, make no mistake; this is the darkest, most unsettling episode yet, and it’s only getting more frightening from here. As Harry grows, the stories around him mature. “Goblet of Fire” makes the point, for the first time, that all the peril Harry regularly encounters can actually kill someone. “Dark and difficult times lie ahead,” says Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The fact that he says it at the END of the movie — after dragons, ritual bloodlettings and death have been used to great effect for 144 minutes — makes you wonder what could “lie ahead” that could be any worse.

It’s a scary, exciting good time, never gruesome or gratuitous, always with one mad eye focused on entertaining an eager audience. The film bursts with ceaseless magic and fantastical images — a feast for the eyes as well as the mind — and reminds us at every turn of two things: that this is supposed to be fun, and that adding layers of depth to it increases our enjoyment of it. The series is on a roll.

A- (2 hrs., 24 min.; PG-13, a lot of intense action sequences and scariness.)