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Friday, November 18, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The Essex Outlet Cinemas looked a lot like they were giving away free money this afternoon when I arrived for my usual Friday afternoon perch in the top room right side corner to see the latest release. Of course this was no ordinary Friday. The parking lot was extremely crowded, the lobby was swarming with people, and my always chipper and accommodating staff, while still chipper and accommodating, looked a wee bit tired. Who can blame them? Most were there until at least 3:00 am last evening for the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and returned around 8:00 am this morning to make sure the theaters were back to their pristine condition for today's crowds. After all, Harry Potter viewing is not just movie going, it is a phenomenon unto itself.

This is the fourth in the Harry Potter series, and my fourth attending the opening day at the Essex Outlet Cinemas. I asked Dale Chapman, the theater manager, when the Essex Outlet Cinemas opened as my memory is about as substantial as a trailer in a tornado and he reminded me that they opened in October 2001 shortly before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone premiered. I was sad that there wasn't a birthday celebration for the theater. I think it deserves a party as much as anybody else. Happy Birthday, Essex Outlet Cinemas!

So, talking about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is like telling Catholics planning a trip to Rome that they may enjoy a trip to the Vatican. Anyone who is thinking of seeing this installment of the Harry Potter series is surely already a die-hard fan, and it is probably just as well because coming in at this point might be a bit confusing to a clueless muggle who has never seen one of the previous films or read the books. This film dispenses with the formalities of re-introducing us to the characters or setting up their relationships with one another. We are simply expected to know in the first scene that Harry is obviously sleeping at Ron Weasley's house and that he is being led to the World Quiddich Tournament by Ron's father, Arthur, and accompanied by Ron, Hermione Granger, Ron's twin brothers George and Fred, and their younger sister Ginny.

A brief unpleasant encounter with Lucius Malfoy and his equally snide son Draco would no doubt leave newcomers to the Harry Potter tales scratching their heads as Director Mike Newell does not pause in the action for explanations. By now he expects the mere presence of certain characters to telegraph a sense of their purpose and place in the Potter saga. And the gang is all here. Well, almost all of the gang. The Dursleys, Harry's horrid Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and piggish cousin Dudley have been excised from their usual place as the comic opening sequence of the film and those who loved the book may be as disappointed as I was that an entire subplot involving Dobby, the house elf prominent in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is gone as is he. Still, many of the students who have played secondary roles over the years are back and it is great to see that continuity and sense of the familiar with the same actors filling the roles of such characters as Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Seamus Finnegan (Devon Murray), and even that annoying toady Vincent Crabbe (Jamie Waylett). The faculty is still made up of some of Britain's greatest actors, including Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, and Michael Gambon as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

There's something quite comfortable about all this familiarity. When we see a train roaring across the screen we don't need to be told this is the Hogwart's Express and we already know we are on our way to the Hogwart's Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the fourth year of the seven year program. What is different this time around has little to do with magic and everything to do with growing up. The change is simple. Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the others are experiencing their first burst of hormones. They are beginning to see one another and the others around them in a curiously romantic light, even if they aren't sure that this is the case. Ron and Harry, who have previously thought of girls as some other species are suddenly seeing that this species demands some attention, and Hermione is doing likewise with her male counterparts. Oddly enough, it is not Harry that has captured Hermione's eye. She appears smitten instead with visiting student Viktor Krum while it is Ron who is a bit too preoccupied with Hermione's feelings for Viktor to recognize that he has feelings for her himself.

Meanwhile, all this love and would-be romance is playing out across the larger story about a contest called the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a sort of Iron Man Triathalon or Olympics competition amongst different wizarding schools from around the world. This year it is Hogwart's honor to host the event and soon the school is full of lovely witches from Beauxbatons, a French academy and a team of stalwart young men from an eastern European school called Durmstrang.

This being the world of magic, the selection of one student from each school to represent them in the Tournament is made not by mere mortal but by the Goblet of Fire itself. Any student over the age of 17 who thinks he or she can face the challenges of the competition may put his or her name on a parchment and toss it into the Goblet for consideration. At a ceremony the following night the magical cup was to spit out one name from each school as the chosen contender. Naturally a serious complication ensues when, after the names are released, the Goblet presents a final fourth name, a second representative from Hogwart's ~ Harry Potter. Chaos erupts as Dumbledore loses his temper, the students accuse Harry of cheating (since he is not yet old enough and therefore could only have gotten past the spell that kept younger students from entering their names by some dubious magical means), the faculty from the other schools suspect Hogwart's of duplicity, and poor Harry, the most confused and abused of all, has no explanation for how his name got into the Goblet despite his having no desire to compete. Unfortunately for Harry, the Ministry of Magic declares that because the rules of the wizarding world require those selected by the Goblet of Fire must participate then Harry must do so whether it was by trickery or the Goblet's design.

This is no easy Tournament and each of the three tasks is life threatening. Students have died in previous contests and in this one it looks as if Harry may be the next to go. Amid trying to hang on to his life through this series of trials Harry is also faced with the very real threat that his old nemesis Voldemorte has returned from the ether, where he was banished after failing to kill Harry as a baby. The energy he exerted on that task diminished him to a mere spirit and now, after thirteen years, he has gathered strength to take solid form again and his supporters have regrouped to wage war on his behalf. First on his agenda, it is clear that his goal is to finish what he had begun when he lost his powers. He wants to destroy Harry once and for all just as he murdered Harry's parents.

This is a wildly complicated film with many plots and subplots knitted, stitched, and in some cases barely strung together. The biggest flaw of the Potter universe is that it has created so many memorable and full-bodied characters that by this, the fourth film, there is simply not enough room for everybody to have their "moment" on the canvas. It seems a shameful waste when Oscar winner Maggie Smith is reduced to three lines and the rest of the movie is reduced to little more than a background player. The same can be said of Alan Rickman, and poor Tom Felton. His Draco Malfoy was Harry's major source of annoyance in the first three movies and here gets in only one line. Of course he at least gets a line. Nearly Headless Nick and the rest of the ghosts (with the very notable exception of Moaning Myrtle) as well as the inhabitants of Hogwart's many, many paintings seem to have gone on holiday. Maybe they don't like dragons. Oh, a spoiler! Yes, there are dragons in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are also mermaids, and an assortment of other scary creatures to be found.

I found this chapter in the life of the world's favorite wizard as entertaining as the first three, but I definitely don't think this is a children's story any longer. Just as Harry, Ron, and Hermione have grown so has the tone and the subject matter of these stories. Besides the budding sexual tensions, obvious bursts of puberty that have struck (Our Harry has hairy legs and a five o'clock shadow! Our Hermione has cleavage! Our Ron has jealous hormonal mood swings!). The games at Hogwart's have taken on a darker, more realistic tone, if you can call fighting fire-breathing dragons realistic. We now find that young people can and do die. Harry is not invulnerable. He bleeds, he hurts, and he does not always win at everything he does as in days past. In this more adult Potter story we also see that feelings can be hurt, friendships can be strained, and not everything ends with happily ever after. Neither does Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but then again the saga isn't over yet.

If you are going to make this a family outing I'd suggest talking to your children first about what to expect. This is a truly frightening film. There is blood, the murder of one of the students, a grotesque transformation, and a Voldemorte (played unrecognizably by Ralph Fiennes) that could give any adult nightmares yet alone an impressionable eight year old. You may want to take the younger ones to Chicken Little or be prepared to enjoy chatting with the always personable Heather or Lan in the lobby at various points during the movie, not that it isn't fun talking with them. I'm just saying...

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