Harry Potter is back on the big screen—and already the fourth-best opening film of all time, at $102.3 million. And right along with it, the ongoing debate among Christians—including film critics—about the merits of J. K. Rowling's increasingly popular literary and cinematic phenomenon has begun again

How does Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire measure up to the other films in the series? Most critics say it's either the best or second-best, praising director Mike Newell for adding richness and depth to such mainstream entertainment. But they also agree that, as Harry grows up, the films are dealing with problems that require more mature sensibilities. Thus, Goblet of Fire earns its PG-13 rating, with some truly frightening sequences.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) focuses on how the series and its central figures are changing. "As our characters have grown up, so has their sense of humor, which relies less on gross-out gags and more on gags that aim below the belt. … But there are also moments of quiet, tender sorrow and joy … However … the film completely fumbles the ball at the most crucial moment." He goes on to criticize the climactic sequence of the film.

Chattaway also criticizes Harry's status as a hero. "The film unfolds so quickly, you almost don't have time to notice how passive Harry is—he is constantly reacting to things or letting events drive him, rather than acting and driving them himself—or how his friends continue to break the rules whenever it suits their purpose. What you do notice are the fantastic visuals … and the amusing characters. Alas, in its climactic moments, Goblet of Fire fails to lay the groundwork that the next films so badly need."

But what about the magic, that ever controversial element of Rowling's narrative?

Yes, the series continues to involve characters with magical powers who must learn to use their powers responsibly and cleverly. In the grand and age-old tradition of fairy tales, Rowling's stories employ the idea of magic in a whimsical, inventive way. They use magic as a metaphor for the ways people exercise power over one another in a dangerous world. But magic in this series is also a way of talking about talent, identity, ingenuity, artistry, technology, and virtue. While real-world witchcraft is certainly a dangerous and deceptive practice, more and more Christians are coming to appreciate the way the Potter stories use make-believe magic to illustrate the spiritual conflict in the real world.

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Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) addresses this issue in his review: "In spite of the rising darkness, concerns relating to Harry's study of magic and the lure of the occult are, arguably, increasingly remote. There's plenty of fantasy or fairy-tale magic in Goblet of Fire … Yet, interestingly, the only elements that in any way resemble real-world occult practices are unambiguously evil, from the Unforgivable Curses to the quasi-sacrificial ritual used to restore Voldemort. … Lawful magic in Goblet of Fire bears no resemblance to so-called 'white' magic as practiced by occultists; there is no divination, no invocation of spirits, no summoning of the dead, no reliance on amulets or charms."

Greydanus concludes that these filmmakers "have done the best job so far trimming the fat from the story. … The Goblet of Fire offers some of the series' most magical imagery."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "entertaining, intelligent and visually delicious, but despite considerable plot-pruning … this Goblet runneth over a bit long." He also notes that it's "the darkest thus far. … From its spooky opening image, the film is probably too scary for young children."

His view on Harry's hocus-pocus? "As with the magical elements in its predecessors, those in Goblet of Fire should be viewed as time-honored storytelling devices, like those employed throughout the history of Western fantasy literature from childhood fairy tales (Cinderella's pumpkin being turned into a carriage) to Arthurian legends and Shakespeare. A reference by Voldemort about the 'old magic' wrought by the sacrificial love of Harry's mother (who died protecting him in his infancy) seems to echo the salvific 'Deeper Magic' spoken of in C. S. Lewis' Christian-allegorical The Chronicles of Narnia."

But Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) won't have it. "No matter how skillfully the story gets told or how selfless, ethical and heroic Harry may be, it's impossible for me to invest myself or my family in a series that glamorizes witchcraft."

And Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) is dismayed. "Perhaps this fourth movie … will be the one that compels us to ask why we would put this material into our children's heads. As I looked around the theater and saw dozens of little children dressed as wizards and sorcerers, watching one horror after another on the big screen, my heart broke for the sheer lack of parental discernment."

Mainstream critics are applauding Newell's installment in the series.

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Walk the Line comes to the wrong conclusion

In James Mangold's new film Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix brilliantly portrays Johnny Cash in his maturation from a naïve young soldier to a battle-scarred, reckless, rock-n-roll Tyrannosaurus Rex.

No actor we're familiar with could have done it better. Phoenix masters the walk and the demeanor, and comes surprisingly close to mastering Cash's deep drawl—a voice as distinct as John Wayne's. His singing might convince some viewers that it's actually a clever work of lip-synching to the master's voice, but no, that's Phoenix finding a whole new register.

As June Carter, Reese Witherspoon matches him, stride for stride, song for song, turning their debates and duets into showstoppers. And she makes the turbulence in Carter's heart convincing as she flinches at Cash's advances, despairs at his self-destructive tendencies, and wrestles with her growing affection for him while she keeps his wife and kids in her peripheral vision.

Yes, it's a powerful, glamorous, colorful production.

Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Walk the Line will no doubt be accused by some of being a conventional film, and it certainly does follow standard biopic conventions. But a story as compelling as Johnny Cash's doesn't need innovative camera angles or striking new narrative techniques to make it worthy of our attention. Johnny Cash changed music forever with three or four guitar chords and a voice that people believed. June Carter changed Johnny Cash forever with faith and love. Those are some pretty-old-fashioned ideas, but Walk the Line makes them new again. Johnny and June would be proud."

But according to other Christian film critics, the film is misguided. They conclude that Mangold wants us to believe that a story of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and a saving faith was instead a story of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and a saving infidelity.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

"Walk the Line … is a story that is more about Christian guilt than redemption," writes Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "a love story in which the lead character slowly destroys his marriage and family through selfishness and cupidity; a story of addictive behavior in which drugs are eventually supplanted by obsession with a self-possessed but vulnerable young woman."

He concludes, "If Walk the Line is a love story, it strikes me as a remarkably ambivalent, unromantic one. Johnny's fascination with the bubbly Grand Old Opry princess is disturbingly obsessive and overbearing.… In spite of all it does right, Walk the Line leaves one with the nagging sense of a story unfinished—or rather, with something left out."

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Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) agrees, noting that the filmmakers "stop short of showing Cash's own deep religious conversion. … Rather than watching a story of the power of redemption, we mostly see a film about the destructiveness of sin, and of marital unfaithfulness. In that, we learn little that we haven't seen in numerous other films about troubled souls who find solace and peace in each other's arms. Although human love was a potent force in the life of Johnny Cash, it was not the ultimate transforming power that the movie implies."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a superior biopic. … Phoenix surpasses all his fine prior work with this heart-wrenching, Oscar-worthy acting, and Witherspoon matches him scene for scene." But he adds, "It must be said that the romance, however touching, between Carter and the still-married Cash is naggingly problematic from a basic moral, as much as a Catholic, perspective. [The filmmakers] are careful not to paint Vivian as a villain but they clearly stack the story in favor of Carter."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes, "Johnny's story—the whole story, that is—is a hopeful one, because it's about redemption. Mangold hints at this in Walk the Line, but moviegoers are left thinking that salvation came not from Jesus, but rather from a hit record recorded live at Folsom Prison. That's not fair and it's not true. … Mangold … was much too interested in Johnny and June's love affair with each other to spend much time on what God was preparing them for."

Steve Beard (a Christian writing about film and culture for The National Review) likes the film anyway. "Despite its gaps and shortcomings, however, Walk the Line is powerful and electric—the kind of movie that Johnny Cash could appreciate, warts and all."

Most mainstream critics are calling it one of the year's best films.

Sympathy for Palestinians in Paradise Now

Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are thinking about becoming suicide bombers. These two Palestinians, the central characters of a new thriller called Paradise Now, are headed for trouble. As their story shifts from the West Bank city of Nablus to Tel Aviv, their differing convictions about violence lead to actions that draw viewers to the edges of their seats.

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But it's not just suspenseful—it's controversial as well. Should artists be inviting us to sympathize with terrorists? Is that what director Hany Abu-Assad's film is really doing?

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says films like Paradise Now leave the viewer "torn between two impulses: on the one hand, you hope the film will allow the atrocity to be seen for what it is, but on the other, you hope it will allow the characters' humanity to come through, in all its dimensions, without reducing their situation to propaganda. The trick, for filmmaker and audience alike, is, as always, to love the sinner but hate the sin."

So, how does this movie fare as an examination of sin? "[Abu-Assad] … does a good job of building tension and showing some of the complexities within Palestinian culture. He has, as they say, put a human face on the Palestinians. Now let's hope that someone can put a human face on the Israelis, in a movie that the Palestinians might want to see."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "Paradise Now is more suspenseful than any traditional thriller you'll see all year. There are twists and turns, with periods of waiting punctuated by genuinely exciting chase sequences. The movie doesn't have the huge explosions and fancy special effects of a blockbuster, but it does have something those generic films lack—genuine uncertainty. Because the movie doesn't telegraph the outcome, there are so many points when we're on the edge of our seats."

Mainstream critics find it to be breathtakingly suspenseful and brave.

Christmas in the Clouds "a modestly entertaining diversion"

With a reputation that could earn it the nickname "My Big Fat Native American Christmas," a 2001 film festival crowdpleaser is finally making its way to a wider release.

In Christmas in the Clouds, a college graduate takes charge of a Native American ski lodge and tries to turn it into a professional operation before a travel critic shows up to check it out. Family dynamics, offbeat employees, and a case of mistaken identity … it all sounds suspiciously like an episode of the old "Newhart" television series. But the fact that the cast is made up of Native Americans, and that the film presents a refreshingly contemporary view of Native American culture, makes this title stand out as a unique, memorable production.

"The film is being billed as a classic screwball romantic-comedy a la Howard Hawks and Frank Capra, but, truth be told, it's just not nearly as interesting as the films by those two great filmmakers," writes Josh Hurst (Christianity Today Movies). "The plot is just too pedestrian, the writing just too limp, and most of the characters just too boring for this to be anything more than a modestly entertaining diversion, and a noble attempt at bringing Native American culture to the Cineplex."

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "A largely Native American cast notwithstanding, this is basically an old-fashioned romantic comedy which, in its modest way, should help dispel misguided notions of that often stereotyped ethnic group. … With its quirky, gentle humor, this low-key story of love and forgiveness will make respectable holiday viewing."

Mainstream critics are pleased with this mild-mannered holiday comedy.

More reviews of recent releases

Pride & Prejudice: "This is no mere chick flick," writes Gene Edward Veith (World). "Guys will like it too, if only to gaze upon the intensely beautiful Ms. Knightley. But men will especially appreciate the movie if they use it as a learning opportunity. … [Women] … resonate with a specific kind of masculine character: the forceful, honorable 'gentleman' that 21st-century guys would do well to emulate."