I had the opportunity to catch a private pre-screening of this movie. What a treat!
It opens in black and white with a dark and stormy night and the Warner Brothers logo. Then a snake slithers along the ground… and then the title. But soon afterward, it explodes into full-color fireworks of the World Cup of Quidditch. But we aren’t shown this exciting game as it’s portrayed in the book (you’ve got to cut something from the 734-page book. They were toying with making two movies from it, to be released close together, but ultimately decided against it.) Rather, we’re ushered into a different contest, the TriWizard Tournament competition.
It soon becomes clear that this isn’t your previous kiddie’s movie. As the first PG-13 movie in the Harry Potter franchise, it’s darker, more frightening, and more mature. In many ways, it is the most satisfying of the series. However, the appearance of the personification of Lord Voldemort and some other scenes may be too intense for younger viewers.
This is not about fun and games; the struggles here are about life and death.
This movie picks up our heroes at the age of 14, whom we haven’t seen since they were 13, and the awkward challenges they face in their teenage years, including testing the nature of their friendship. Associated with the TriWizard Tournament is the Christmas Eve night Yule Ball (a Christian holiday mentioned amongst the magic?) As each of our trio struggles with who to go to the dance with, some of the sly humor comes out.
As the visiting contestants from two other foreign wizarding schools arrive at Hogwarts, the special effects are the most dazzling yet. With a submarine sailing ship and a pegasus-pulled carriage, it’s fabulous.
The budding romance between Ron and Hermione is set aside as she is squired to the dance by an older visiting Bulgarian contestant. But Hermione is now revealed as a budding lovely young lady. This was hinted at in the previous movie but is now showcased with her dramatic entrance to the Ball.
Harry, on the other hand, laments how difficult it is to ask a girl to the Ball when they tend to “travel in packs.” His gaze has turned to a new face, the fresh face of Katie Leung in the role of Cho Chang, picked from an audition of 3,000 young ladies. The clumsiness and awkwardness of adolescence are poignant and touching, deftly and honestly handled.
The climactic portion of the movie deals with the Tournament, with three tasks: in air, the water, and on land (no it’s not Earth, Wind, and Fire… though when one thinks of dragons, one does tend to think of fire.) The contest with the dragon shows the decidedly Gothic spires of Hogwarts’ roofline in great array. But, it is the second contest that shows Harry’s character.
Harry Potter is an “everyman”, a rather ordinary boy with extraordinary power. But as a hero, he’s unexpected and reluctant, not the quickest in mind or body, but his character is revealed in each trial as that of “strong moral fiber.”
Meanwhile, the co-starring roles of the Hogwarts’ faculty are delightful. Brendan Gleeson does a terrific job as the curious “Mad-Eye” Moody, a new Professor of Defense against the Dark Arts, and his arch-Dublin accent puts him just short of a Pirate. He’s had significant roles in recent movies, including Menelaus in “Troy” and Reynald in “Kingdom of Heaven.” He is probably best remembered as Mel Gibson‘s right-hand man Hamish in “Braveheart,” which was filmed mostly in Ireland. Ironically, Gleeson spent 10 years teaching school before becoming an actor.
Miranda Richardson plays the role of Rita Skeeter the gossip reporter for the Daily Prophet. You may remember her in the role of Madame Giry in the movie version of “Phantom of the Opera” or as Queen Elizabeth for fans of the BBC series “Blackadder II.”
Alan Rickman‘s deliciously loathsome Professor Severus Snape is a delight to see at any time. My first recollection of him is as the bad guy in “Die Hard,” but he’s been in a ton of English movies and other fine American ones. And who can forget him in “Sense and Sensibility?”
While the other professors have less screen time than in the previous movies, Hogwarts’ headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, knighted as CBE) has decidedly more exposure. We loved him in “Gosford Park” and many other roles, especially in West End Theatre in London.
Obligatory Movie trivia: he once auditioned for the role of James Bond after George Lazenby‘s single performance in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” but was turned down as they didn’t want to hire another “unknown.” More ironic still, he appears in the 2004 movie “Layer Cake” with Daniel Craig, who has been cast as the new James Bond in the next 007 outing “Casino Royal.”
But this film especially felt the absence of Richard Harris in the role. Gambon seems to be more of an academic functionary and a less wise and powerful wizard than Harris. Something about Harris suggested his kind affection for the lonely orphan Harry. And Harris has played his share of regal characters.
Obligatory Theatre trivia: I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Harris in person doing the role of King Arthur in the revival of “Camelot” some 25 years ago in Los Angeles. While Harris did have a hit single in the 60s with “MacArthur Park” he is not best known for his singing. However, he was a stand in for the original Richard Burton, who is even less well known for his singing, but Burton had been permanently sidelined from the revival tour by a pinched nerve in his back.
At the end of each movie, Dumbledor has a brief interview with Harry where he asks simple yet deep questions and imparts some wisdom. The same happens here as he notes that with his coming of age, he will have to make decisions “between what is right and what is easy.”
Ralph Fiennes is cast as the now corporeal Lord Voldemort. Lithe and reptilian, he is both charming and loathsome as the evil wizard who years ago killed Harry’s parents. Harry’s contest with him is quite dramatic and revealing. I’ll say no more.
This is the first Harry Potter movie where John Williams does not do the music, other than the theme, and he wasn’t missed. I find the theme too reminiscent of his music in “Hook” and rather distracting in the Potter movies. Instead, in this movie, the music is by Patrick Doyle, who had a small role as an actor in my favorite movie, “Chariots of Fire” (1981). He’s also done the music for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Gosford Park.” It’s got more of a sense of wonder and whimsy.
This movie was sincerely entertaining, a real pop-corn pleaser for the holidays, but those who know me have heard me describe the Harry Potter books as “Diet Tolkien” or “C.S. Lewis Lite.” While it does enjoy magic, it is derivative of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s wizard school in “A Wizard of Earthsea” books. And the creatures, culture, history, and languages in no way compare to the depth and scope of Tolkien. Not that J.K. Rowling is not a good writer, it’s just that Tolkien was a professor and knew his history, language, and literature to a level far beyond Rowling. And Tolkien’s close friend, fellow professor, and novelist C.S. Lewis was equally popular, especially with his fantasy series. J.R.R. Tolkien is my favorite writer of fiction, but I love Lewis’ non-fiction writing.
It will be interesting to see what December’s movie “Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” brings.
- You’ll like it if: You like action, special effects, teen romance
- You won’t if: You’re disappointed by movies that don’t cleave close to the book or are easily frightened
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture