casWith the fourth film in the series, the Harry Potter films may have set a real record – it’s the first franchise where each movie is better than the last one for this long.

A lot of the credit must go to the source material. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was, at the time, the biggest book in the series, and it was the most ambitious by a long shot. JK Rowling opened her world up – while the prior three books had been almost completely set at and about the grounds of Hogwarts, Goblet of Fire gives us our first real look at the rest of the wizarding world with the Quidditch World Cup and the international TriWizard Tournament.

But it isn’t just geography that’s explored in Goblet of Fire. Rowling moves her characters into adolescence, making the whole book about the end of childhood. Wisely this is what director Mike Newell and longtime adapter Steve Kloves have chosen to focus on, filling the movie with the first stirrings of sexuality – and the first encounters with mortality.

Goblet of Fire is a real achievement as a film in a lot of ways. The book was the toughest adaptation yet, but you don’t feel anything missing in the final film. Mike Newell was new to this genre and to the sheer amount of effects, but the movie is effortless and lovely, with a both a charming eye for detail and a vision of grand spectacle.

But the best achievement may be in just how much of a damn good film it is. It’s a real competitor for a spot in the list of great coming of age movies. As a Harry Potter film it profits from being the fourth – Newell doesn’t need to waste any time on the introduction of characters or the world, and we’re plunged headfirst into the story. The responsibility is on you for keeping up with the details – if you don’t remember what a polyjuice potion is, no one is taking the time to explain it to you. Don’t despair – Newell doesn’t let that stuff weigh down the film. He knows that the magic and the monsters are there for color, and not to be the center of attention.

The center of attention is the tribulations our heroes must face as they hit puberty. Harry has no problem summoning up the courage to take on a fire breathing dragon in one of the deadly contests of the TriWizard Tournament, but asking a girl out leaves him frozen in fear. Sex and the complications that come with it are the real Big Bads of the story, although by the end a new Bad joins them – death.

Death is something that has always been present in the Potter series, from the very beginning of Harry’s life when his parents were murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort. But death was something that happened to adults, or villains, and the dangers to the kids were minor. Everything would turn out OK. Goblet of Fire upends that. Suddenly the danger is very real, and very immediate. This is the darkest film yet, although it lacks the gothic grace of Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. The darkness in Goblet is of a different sort, no longer the darkness where monsters lurk but the darkness that confronts teenagers whose bodies have begun to change and who are slowly becoming aware of their mortality. It’s an existential darkness, the one that reminds you that one day you, too, will die.

It sounds like heavy stuff, but Newell has a more natural understanding of the way children behave, and the kids this year are rambunctious and mischievous. Everything is darker, but everything is also more fun. And the magic seems less silly and more majestic, more important. The film is energized, like Newell has turned the knob up another notch.

When the first film was released there was speculation about whether the original kids would stay with the series for all seven movies. Thankfully the decision was made to keep them. While none of them are going to be winning any awards anytime soon, they’ve all made the roles their own. There’s a lack of artifice in the acting, and as a result the relationships and situations feel more genuine.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s hard to pick out any one actor. It feels like the adults have a little more to do this time out than in the last film, and it definitely seems like they’re having a blast. Maggie Smith appears delighted in many of her scenes, and Ralph Fiennes deftly treads the hammy line as the incredibly creepy looking Voldemort.

Things just get worse for Harry Potter and friends after the events of this film. Is it possible that the franchise can keep bucking the odds and keep getting better? I thought that Prisoner of Azkaban had set a very high bar, but Goblet of Fire easily ups the ante (and without resorting to mixing metaphors, mind you, unlike me). For years I’ve felt bad for the people who resisted the wonderful universe JK Rowling has created in her novels – maybe this excellent, fantastic film will convince them that Harry Potter isn’t just a fad or silly kiddie stories, but a great contribution to the modern imagination.

9 out of 10