It’s midnight at the oasis here in the offices of the Hollywood trade paper where I’ve been known to toil when not writing
time travel fiction (or sometimes concurrently). It’s a
week of harried deadlines, and there’s buzz in the office:
Narnia is great, we’re all waiting to get an early
peek at King Kong and how
is the new Harry Potter?
I can speak to that last question, having seen it a
few days ago with my 11 year-old, who's followed the saga of the young Brit wizard ever since the first book was read to
him at bedside when he was on the cusp of his kindergarten career.
Indeed, it was he, when leaving the screening (in L.A. movies are all watched at “screenings,” or so everyone would have you believe), who noticed a key point in the latest Potter installment — you know, the Goblet of Fire
one: “The scene in the bath was changed,” he said. “In the book, it didn’t have Moaning Myrtle.”
Now, his recollection of Rowling minutiae is admittedly better than mine, so I didn’t argue with him, but I thought it pointed to a key difference this film has from the previous installments: They’ve “tarted it up,” to use Brit-speak. Made it sexier, in its Potter-ish way. (Editor's note: Moaning Myrtle is in the bathtub scene in the book, the bubbly tart.)
The scene in question is during the Tri-Wizard tournament at Hogwarts, where Harry has to dunk a golden egg into the water to get a clue as to where to go next. The bathroom-haunting
ghost of teenage Myrtle is there, and as Daniel Radcliffe does a half-nude scene cavorting in the bubble bath, Myrtle is busy trying to get a peek at his other wand.
They’re all growing up, in other words, and the current
movie comes close to matching the fervid emotional state Harry, Ron and Hermione find themselves in in the latest
book (and I don’t mean because of Voldemort), theoretically two installments later than the onscreen events.
But the actors, see, are growing faster than Rowling can write,
so the films are getting complex at a more algorithmic rate than
the tomes. And who says I can’t write about math?
Of course, with all yin there must come yang, so with the budding of sexual desire, dates for prom (in this instance a
Christmas ball), there is the attendant darkness and destruction,
and that is all handled quite well: There is a terrific dragon chase sequence at the outset of the Tri-Wizard tourney, something
the good folks at ILM labored on for months, including a terrifically
blocked scene on Hogwarts’ outer walls, as a dragon tries to get its talons into young Harry.
The new roles are also impeccably cast in that oh-so-British
way: Ralph “Call Me Rafe” Fiennes
is reborn out of a cauldron (it sounds so Macbeth-like) as Voldemort, which means we’ll see him in all the remaining
films, and Brendan Gleeson, so good in Gangs of New York, shows up here as a perfect Mad Eye Moody. Michael Gambon at last fully inhabits Dumbledore and makes the role his own.
Book sticklers may be disappointed: The first half of the novel is compressed into much less relative screen time, so the entire Quidditch World Cup sequence becomes just a
couple of scenes. This has the lamentable effect of minimizing the return of the Death Eaters. Here, they’re more like soccer hooligans gone a bit too far than the harbingers
of nearly inevitable civil war.
Overall though, the Potter flicks have become as reliable, entertainment-wise, as '60s-era James Bond installments: The cast,
the scripts, and the direction all hum along, and very few marks
are missed. The PG-13 rating is earned, mostly for mood; and the death of a student — and his father’s heart-rending
lament at seeing his son — provide some serious emotional
stakes. Dare we say, akin to the end of On Her Majesty’s
Secret Service, as long as we’re making 007 comparisons.
(Although, since the point has been raised, the leads seem a little too chipper in the scenes following the series’ first on-screen murder).
But small caveats aside, this is absolutely reliable entertainment, even if it’s not transcendent. And — since we mentioned marks — how can you not like a film that has a Mark Williams in it?