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'Goblet' is a sure-fire hit

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J.K. Rowling turns out the "Harry Potter" novels and, like clockwork, the movies follow. Notice I didn't say churns out - Rowling is a real writer. But the movie adaptations have been highly variable in quality.

The first two - "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" - were both directed by Chris Columbus. Therein lies the rub. Columbus is a journeyman entertainer, but the material called for a magician. Rowling's novels are far richer even as a visual experience than those movies. One reason the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy so easily overshadowed the Columbus films is because Peter Jackson, for all his fetishizing of ghouls and glop, had a genuine feeling for the fantastical.

Things picked up considerably with the film version of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" because its director, Alfonso Cuarón, had a direct pipeline to childhood imaginings. (His 1995 "A Little Princess" is one of the finest of all children's films - which is another way of saying that everyone who sees it is left enchanted.) Although it doesn't often scale the visionary heights of Cuarón's film, at its best, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which was directed by Mike Newell, is a worthy successor.

For one thing, Newell is the first Englishman to direct a Potter film, and he understands in his bones the rigors and snobbishness of a place like Hogwarts, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now in his fourth year. Whatever else the novels are, they are also marvelous metaphors for the English class system.

But as in the "Prisoner of Azkaban," "Goblet of Fire" reveals that system through a glass darkly. Rowling's novel ran to more than 700 pages, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has written all of the films, does his usual admirable job of paring the story to its essentials. (That means that S.P.E.W. - a subplot about the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare - had to go.) The new Potter movie has the tension and velocity of a good thriller.

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