Love, Laughter and Spectacle: Fireworks on Film

FIREWORKS will light up the sky this weekend as people across Britain celebrate Guy Fawkes night.

Children will gawp, lovers will embrace, teens will misbehave, and dogs will cower behind the couch.

On film, fireworks have evoked a similarly diverse range of responses. In Oz and the Great and Powerful (2013) and The Great Gatsby (2013) the elaborate use of fireworks act as ostentatious indicators of power and wealth. In the latter, Gatsby (Leonardo Di Caprio) is showy – and enigmatic enough – to time his arrival to match the crescendo of his orchestra and soaring fireworks.

Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) mischievously – just like the mischievous teens I referred to earlier – set off Gandalf’s fireworks early during Bilbo’s big 111th birthday party in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). The dragon firework the two hobbits unleash is a fiery introduction to the wonderous and dangerous world of Middle Earth that we will soon explore.

Such spectacle acts as a highly effective distraction in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). The Weasley twins burst into an exam hall and let off fireworks, including a dragon – like the one in The Fellowship – which chases away Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).

There is a more communal feel to the beautiful firework display shown in Benh Zeitlin’s poetically stunning film Beats of the Southern Wild (2012). A young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) races around with sparklers in her hand – a moment of ecstasy before the storm.

Fireworks are used to indicate internal ecstasy in Ratatouille (2007). The rodent chef enjoys an explosion of taste buds when he takes a bite of strawberry and cheese.

From a rat’s tongue to a galaxy far, far away, as fireworks fill the sky over Endor at the end of the original Star Wars saga. Fireworks bring finality as the Rebels celebrate their victory over the evil Empire.

Sometimes the anticipation of a firework spectacle can result in slightly disappointing – and comedic – outcomes.

In We’re the Millers (2013) and Hot Rod (2007), fireworks go off to underwhelming fanfare. Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (1996) – his debut feature which is named after a type of firework – shows Dignan (Owen Wilson) shooting fireworks out of the car in the middle of the afternoon. Hardly spectacular, but amusing enough for some male minds.

As Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) attempts to negotiate with a drug dealer in Boogie Nights (1997), a Chinese man throws firecrackers at them for seemingly no reason. The randomness of this – and the ineffectiveness of the firecrackers – makes for a brilliantly absurd scene.

Fireworks in the wrong hands can, of course, be dangerous. Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) use them to play a prank on Travis (Rob Riggle) in Dumb and Dumber 2 (2014). Their trickery goes horribly wrong, forcing a burning Travis to leap into the hotel pool.

In Kevin Reynold’s Fandango (1985), college students haphazardly set off fireworks which almost end in disaster. Similar carelessness results in fatality for one unlucky teen in horror-flick Final Destination 3 (2006).

Fireworks have been used, intentionally, for more good-willed purposes. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) sets them off to mimic gunfire and ward off a home invader in Home Alone (1990).

Fellow youngster Marty (Corey Haim) lets go of a firework to hit the killer werewolf in the eye during Dan Attias’ horror Silver Bullet (1985). Just as Mushu (Eddie Murphy) lights a gigantic firework to bring an end to evil baddie Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) in Mulan (1998).

Admiral Boom (Reginald Owen) also uses fireworks as a weapon as he attempts to break up Bert’s (Dick Van Dyke) chimney sweep dance routine in Mary Poppins (1964). On this occasion, fireworks end the party rather than adding to the fun.

Violence also undermines the fun of fireworks in Brokeback Mountain (2006). Ennis (Heath Ledger) beats up two rowdy bikers while colourful fireworks shoot into the sky behind him. His wife Alma (Michelle Williams) can be seen holding their crying child in the edge of the frame – the flames of Ennis’ anger and the rupture of his family are all on display.

Evey (Natalie Portman) is left in awe as fireworks and explosions go off to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Overture in the closing moments of V for Vendetta (2006). V (Hugo Weaving) even has time to allude to Guy Fawkes and the November tradition before his well-timed plan is enacted.

On a smaller scale, Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) rely on a firework to help catch up with Andy’s car in Toy Story (1995). For these inventive toys, the firework becomes a jet engine allowing them to overcome the odds and save the day.

In less innocent terms, Matthew Vaughn uses fireworks to censor a building full of exploding heads in his ultra-violent action flick Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). This allows us to see the chaos while still sparing us from horrifically bloody mess it would have actually left.

In complete contrast to this, fireworks have been used to signal and heighten moments of romance on the big-screen. In Aladdin (1993) and Forest Gump (1994), couples watch from high vantage points as fireworks go off. For Forest (Tom Hanks) this romantic time with Jenny (Robin Wright) marks ‘the happiest time in my life’.

Fireworks can act as the icing on a romantic cake. A dazzling aesthetic to seal a memorable moment of pure romance. Few cinematic moments are as purely romantic as the kiss between Frances (Grace Kelly) and John (Cary Grant) in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955). Hitchcock cuts back-and-forth between a sparkling Kelly and the fireworks outside until the two finally embrace.

In Fireworksout on November 15 – and Adventureland (2009), young lovers share intimate moments under the glow of evening fireworks.

For Em (Kristen Stewart) and James (Jesse Eisenberg), this deftly romantic scene is underlined by the soothing sounds of Crowded Houses’ Don’t Dream It’s Over. The two cannot help but share a quick glance at each other in between gazing up at the sky. Soon they end up in the car trying to act on their explosive feelings for each other.

Fireworks have the power, through beauty and sheer spectacle, to ignite and intensify feelings within us. To help us celebrate, to love and to laugh.

Enjoy November 5.

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