It's the game-changer. That's not because of the director, but about beginning with Death Eaters doing a Klu Klux Klan march in public through the biggest sporting event in the wizarding calendar and ending with the murder of a Hogwarts student and Voldemort's resurrection. The dude's not a spectre any more. He's played by Ralph Fiennes with no nose and he's walking, talking and killing.
Oh, and there's almost no school business either. I think there's only one classroom scene, which is Mad-Eye Moody using the three unforgiveable curses to enslave, torture and eventually kill an insect. Instead it's mostly about (a) the Triwizard Tournament, and (b) girls.
I should start with a caveat. I love the Harry Potter films, but they're superbly well-made adventures. They have heroes, villains, courage, life-or-death struggles, etc. That's just as true here as always. If you're expecting them to be challenging, life-changing experiences... well, um, no.
That said, though, this film was Oscar-nominated for Best Art Direction, even if the same's also true of Philosopher's Stone and both halves of The Deathly Hallows. On a less elevated level, it also has the best CGI monster action scenes of the franchise so far. At last, they've got that right. It had always been a minor problem area. Harry vs. the Hungarian Horntail is trouser-filling action hero death-defiance that any James Bond movie would be delighted to include if it weren't for the dragon. That's one destructive reptile. Throw in the body count, the dangerous tone and the hedge maze scenes based on one of Kubrick's abandoned ideas for The Shining... yup, I can't disagree with the certificate's jump from PG (films 1-3) to PG-13 and international equivalents.
Other stuff that's different about this film:
(a) It's funnier, albeit in a sardonic, understated way. These aren't belly laughs, but Mike Newell's still putting more humour in this film than I'd noticed in its predecessors.
(b) Harry Potter discovers girls, albeit with pyrotechnic anti-success. Hagrid gets a romantic interest. The international schools coming to Hogwarts seem to be single-sex (not true in the books) and have such hormone-drenched introductions that it's actually funny. The Beauxbatons glamour girls even make the soundtrack swoon, after which the stomping Durmstrang boys are the same, but fire-eatingly macho. One of the three Triwizard trials involves rescuing a loved one, which half the time means "girlfriend". Ron and Hermione make an almighty hash of relationship issues. Most prominent though is the massive plot detour about boys inviting girls to the ball and then making a cringe-inducing hash of it. (Compare the catastrophe that is Harry and Ron with the success of a bizarrely Dracula-like Neville Longbottom.)
Oh, and a surprisingly well-muscled Harry has a bath with Moaning Myrtle. (He's not interested, but she definitely is.)
All this is often embarrassing and/or funny. It's also the right place for it. Harry's at that age. There's also some screamingly teenage behaviour from Ron, played with admirable commitment by Grint.
The acting's still on that upward curve. The adults are all excellent, as you'd expect from a series that so brimming with famous names that even throwaway roles are liable to use actors who'd heading the cast in any other production. However it's the child actors we're really interested in. Grint is admirable. Radcliffe meanwhile has made it up to adequate, doing reasonably with what's still a Herculean role. (As always, he's still in almost every scene of the film.) He only fails once (on seeing Hermione in her ballgown), he's usually good and he's capable of excellence (e.g. his anger at Draco Malfoy), although a stronger actor would have made more of the film's third act.
It's Watson who really shocked me, though. She's always been the best of the three leads, but here she blew me away. She's not just "good enough", but easily keeping pace with the spectacular adult cast. She's superb, consistently. Her anxiety for Harry before the dragon challenge, her anger at the ball... she's funny, she's both powerful and subtle and she's selling her scenes like nobody's business.
Matthew Lewis is bad as Neville Longbottom, though. Sweet and likeable, but not up to the job. (His role's been expanded, what's more, giving Harry the gillyweed since Dobby's been written out. This has the unlikely implication that Neville, of all people, had broken into Snape's store to steal it.)
Of the adults, David Tennant is putting everything he has into a key role that gets less screen time than I'd have liked. (He's also adding to the series's occasional snake motif, with that improvised snake tongue thing. Mind you, the movie doesn't explain what happens to him in the end, unlike the book, so I can imagine fans wondering when he'll return in the remaining films. Bad luck.) Brendan Gleeson is having lots of fun being dangerously off the leash, even as a good guy. Rickman's still doing that sad anti-anger. Eric Sykes gets a cameo! The most surprising performance, though, is Gambon's as Dumbledore. For the first time in this film series, Dumbledore comes alive as a man. We're used to seeing him as the personification of all things wise, good and trustworthy... but here Gambon makes him a darker figure, more insecure and capable of taking scary decisions. Suddenly you realise that he's acting under pressure. You can see under his skin. I still wish they'd cast Richard Attenborough, but Gambon's Dumbledore is the first time that these films have clearly surpassed the books.
It's worth mentioning Fiennes as well, though. Valdemort can hardly be said to have been painted in shades of grey, but even so I like the horror of what Fiennes is doing. There's a quote of him saying that, when you strip the magical elements away, his finale's really just a man humiliating a young boy.
This is also perhaps the Harry Potter film for Doctor Who fans. As well as the usual regulars and semi-regulars (Brian Williams, David Bradley, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon, Shirley Henderson), we also have Roger Lloyd Pack, Jeff Rawle and of course David Tennant.
Robert Pattinson has since got famous, by the way, but he's said that he'd rather play Cedric Diggory again than his role in the Twilight films.
I like the way it shakes up the formula. No Dursleys! We begin with Voldemort, not Harry. The Quidditch World Cup, the Yule Ball, the romance and international elements and of course the Triwizard Tournament itself are all entirely new for us. School barely gets a look-in. All kinds of people get written out, from familiar faces like Dobby and Mrs Weasley to major book characters like Ludo Bagman, Winky the house elf and Bertha Jorkins, the woman tortured and killed by Voldemort and Wormtail.
I like the fact that Julie Walters doesn't appear, by the way, just as I appreciated Jason Isaacs taking a break last time. That's not a slight on them personally. (I particularly love Isaacs, for instance. He's being so deliciously arrogant.) I just think it makes the Harry Potter universe feel bigger and richer not to have the same faces cropping up time after time.
This is a particularly strong Harry Potter entry, I think. My only regret is that Rita Skeeter feels short-changed. She's a slight disappointment compared with the book, which isn't Miranda Richardson's fault. However it feels as if the bad guys are out in force at last, while there's plenty of nasty stuff like the creepy mermaids and the students underwater looking like bloated drowned corpses. I also trust we're going to get an explanation of sinister Rasputin dude. At the same time, though, we've got romantic incompetence being played for painful laughs and a light, witty tone. Emma Watson rules. You can also hardly turn around for all the wonderful adult actors, although that's par for the course with this series.
Some long films get you clock-watching. With Harry Potter, I'm delighted to be watching a longer film, to the extent that I'm hardly aware of their length. The more, the better. Admittedly the evidence so far appears to suggest that they improve for being cut, but even so these are films that I can happily curl up on the sofa and watch for ever (or until they end, whichever comes first). I'm terribly fond of these.