WHEN DID THEY add gym class at Hogwarts? The kids there are starting to look downright buff and sexy in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (which opens Friday, Nov. 18, at the Oak Tree and other theaters). This fourth franchise installment is rated PG-13, since the young wizards' hormones— not just the darker, more intense story—practically demand it. For starters, there's a kind of foreign-exchange program during this new school year: In march a blue- uniformed corps of French schoolgirls, choreographed like cheerleaders in Bring It On. (Director Mike Newell lets his camera linger on their derrieres just a beat—not pervy, but aware, just like astonished Ron and Harry.) Then follow the Slavic studs, brown-shirted bruisers who know more about pectorals than potions. Hermione definitely takes notice of the lead boy, dubbed "the Bulgarian bonbon" by Miranda Richardson's nosy journalist. And from the home country, there's a blond English pretty-boy right out of Brideshead Revisited: Cedric (Robert Pattinson), who's pointedly everything poor Harry is not—older, taller, handsomer, more confident. He probably shaves. He even has a father.
All this eye-candy represents canny casting. One reason we root for Daniel Radcliffe's Harry and his pubescent pals (Rupert Grint's Ron and Emma Watson's Hermione) is that we've practically watched them grow up. Chosen four years ago, with no idea how they'd develop as teens or as actors, they're now not the smartest or most glamorous lot at Hogwarts, but somehow they prevail. Even the singletons in the audience may feel a twinge of parental pride—"My kids, see how they've grown."
Their physical and emotional maturation is integral to the series, of course, as intended by J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers. (Newell, of Four Weddings and a Funeral, is the third director, and he won't be back.) Our trio must now confront death and grief, hormones and tears, even a few chaste kisses on the cheek. Goblet's two main challenges are finding dates for the midterm Yule Ball (which feels like a real teen trauma), and the "Triwizard Tournament," which is equally dangerous but considerably more fantastical. It's like an Outward Bound–style test for young wizards. Naturally, Harry finds himself the youngest and most overmatched competitor against Cedric, the bonbon, and the lead French hottie.
These contests are scary. A flying, fire-breathing dragon chases Harry through the rooftops, the tiles clattering beneath its grasping claws. He must perform an underwater rescue of friends who look, at first, to be dead. Then there's a suffocating topiary labyrinth, of which Harry is warned, "People change in the maze," a motto for the film's theme of adolescence. Ron becomes jealous of Harry and his chosen-one powers, creating a rift in their friendship. Hermione feels frustrated with Ron, who won't dance with her at the ball. And Harry's changes include memories of his family's murder and confronting Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, with CGI rhinoplasty) in some shadowy realm. Goblet is the most death-haunted Potter film to date. Rowling gives her young teen readers credit for knowing that they won't live forever.
She also gives considerably more plot than Newell can possibly pour into the two-hour, 37-minute Goblet. You get a series of entrances from a Who's Who of British acting talent (Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, etc.) setting up scenes never played through. The movie seems structured with bookmarks to passages its dedicated viewers already know by heart—why bother showing what they've already read? It makes for frustratingly abbreviated storytelling. With the teen wizards, too, it's one test, then on to the next. The uneven narrative reflects their bumpy maturation, and perhaps the devoted readers' along with it. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, the Potter movies won't stand on their own without the books.
On the other hand, unlike the members of the Fellowship (too much heroics, too little humanity), our three adolescent wizards are developing into more plausible people. The Yule Ball sequence shows this nicely, and Newell lets it play long. We get the boys shrinking in their seats rather than standing up to dance. We get the panic and exhilaration of dressing up like adults. We get Watson, perhaps the next Keira Knightley, finally sitting on the stairs in her lovely lavender dress and bursting into tears, as other girls sob around her. Is she happy? Is she sad? Both, I think, and Goblet shows that to be the essence of one's teen years. With three more movies to go, these young magicians still need to master their emotions.