Wizard supremacists in black hoods and gruesome skull masks torch a campground and torture nonwizards for amusement. Teenagers match wits with fire-breathing dragons. Menacing mermaids with gray-green skin and yellow eyes bare mouthfuls of needle-sharp teeth. There's also the scariest maze this side of "The Shining" - not to mention a pair of murders and a pivotal act of self-mutilation.
This is a children's movie?
Not according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which gave "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" a PG-13 rating. "Goblet" is the fourth film based on J.K. Rowling's wildly popular novels, but the first to receive a stronger rating than PG.
Some parents are taking the MPAA's warning to heart, while others feel their children's extreme familiarity with the source mitigates the film's scary aspects.
"I don't really worry about it," said Teina Moore of West Valley City, who plans to take daughter Madison, 12, and son Hunter, 10, to see "Goblet" when it opens Friday. Madison has read all six books in the planned seven-part series at least once; Hunter has read the first three and heard the others on tape. "They know what's going on," Moore said.
Laurie Blake of Salt Lake County won't be letting son Barrett, 8, or daughter Erin, 5, see "Goblet" until they are older. Although Barrett read about the film in a National Geographic Kids feature that "made it look totally harmless," his mom had some concerns after reading the book and then seeing previews. "The things you can imagine are one thing, but for it to be up on screen in a big format can be a lot scarier," she said. The PG-13 rating made her decision easier.
Lareen Mellor of Lehi will see the film with other moms before deciding whether it's appropriate for sons Jade, 10, and Gabe, 7. "My kids have read the books a whole bunch of times . . . but the trailers are pretty frightening," she said. Seeing a photo of one of evil Lord Voldemort's henchmen online clinched it: "I'll definitely go see it first."
In "Goblet of Fire," set during Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the 14-year-old hero becomes a reluctant contestant in a potentially deadly wizarding tournament. Between feats of magical daring, Harry faces the equally daunting task of finding a date for the Yule Ball.
Knowing that Harry will survive his climactic encounter with Voldemort takes some of the edge off the film's fear factor, said Mellor, who took the boys to see the first three Potter adventures with nary a second thought. "If we had not read the books, I would not even consider taking them to this," she said.
She considers the MPAA rating a useful guideline, but feels the bottom line for parents is: Know your children and how they react to cinematic scares. Jade, for example, is more sensitive to intense and frightening scenes than his younger brother. "They just have different personalities," Mellor said.
Experts in child psychiatry and psychology agree: Whether the new "Harry Potter" is child-appropriate will depend on the child in question.
"If it's a kid that's more anxiety-prone, I'd definitely keep them away until they were a little bit older," said Susan Wiet, a child psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Utah. "A lot of kids, even if they don't have underlying psychiatric disorders like anxiety or mood instability, they can become pretty activated" by seeing scary or violent images onscreen.
Even children familiar with the books may not be able to handle the movie.
"When kids are exposed to something visual, it has more of an impact," Wiet said. "In the movie it's kind of forced upon them to see in a certain way, [compared with] when a child is listening to a story, where a parent can stop to explain what's going on."
"Books and movies are not exactly parallel processes," said Doug Goldsmith, a child psychologist and executive director of The Children's Center in Salt Lake City.
The power of images is undeniable, Goldsmith said. He cited research after 9/11 that showed anxious people had a harder time getting images of the World Trade Center's collapse out of their heads than non-anxious people.
Generally, Wiet said, the things that scare children today are the same things that scared their parents when they were kids. "However, kids have so much more exposure to more violent themes, through various forms of media, so I think there is a desensitization," she said.
"Parents have to remember the edict that we have in psychology, of being bigger, wiser and kind," Goldsmith said. "We have to make tough decisions as parents. . . .
"The parents should say, 'You're right, I understand that it doesn't feel fair, but some things you're not going to see until you're old enough, and we'll wait a couple of years,'. The parent has to say, 'My answer is no.' "
Movie critic Nell Minow, whose Movie Mom reviews advise what's suitable for children, has seen the new "Harry Potter" film and confirms it "absolutely, positively deserves the PG-13."
"Harry is older, and the things that happen to him are more complex and challenging and disturbing," said Minow, whose reviews run on the Yahoo! web portal. "The other three movies, particularly the last one, were on the borderline between PG and PG-13 - but this one, I think, is well on the side of PG-13."
Minow's advice for parents: "A child who is under 13 but is very familiar with the book, and has handled that material well, should be allowed to go. I would probably go as young as 10 or 11. But that is very much a parental decision - after all, that is what PG-13 stands for. . . . You know your child, and you know what your child can handle."
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