Harry Potter may have grown up and into a PG-13 rating, but the preteens keep coming.
Take Lily, age 4, last seen entering the AMC Hoffman 22 in Alexandria, where children of all ages lined up to see the opening of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth film based on the exploits of the student sorcerer.
Lily's parents, Ashleah Bechtel and Tony Vassalo of Alexandria, said they had no qualms about taking one so young to see a film that features a duel to the death with a fire-breathing dragon along with a helping of teenage romantic angst.
"She has to go," said Bechtel, who reads her daughter chapters from the Harry Potter series every night. "I know people freak out, saying 'Isn't your daughter too young?' But she loves it."
"She watched the 'Lord of the Rings' DVD," Vassalo echoed. "As long as the bad guys were getting it, she loved it. It was 'Black Beauty' that made her cry and cry and cry."
Parents weighed the movie's violence and mature themes against their children's unyielding insistence on seeing the latest installment of Harry's magic -- and in many cases, the magic won.
Tracy Stannard of Northwest Washington said the film was no trouble for her son Miles, who was celebrating his eighth birthday -- especially with so many audience members at the District's Uptown theater cheering and clapping during the action.
"There were some parts that were scary," she said, noting a scene where Harry's nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort, appears, "but for the most part, it was fun."
The Harry Potter franchise, based on the wildly popular books by the British author J.K. Rowling, has always been most popular among children. But many of its original fans have grown into adolescence since the first book in the series appeared in 1997.
The key to holding on to that base of fans, said Dawn Taubin, president of marketing for Warner Brothers, is for the films to mature along with the books.
"The scenes that made it a PG-13 -- to take them out would have not been, to our minds, honoring our original intention to be faithful to those books," Taubin said. "I think they would have been revolted if we had taken out those scenes."
So in the books as in the films, Harry Potter has grown older -- he is 11 years old when the series starts and is 14 in "Goblet of Fire" -- and the story line has grown darker.
Taubin compared the Potter books to a franchise such as Nancy Drew, in which the young detective never ages. "They read them and read them, then they outgrow them," she said of the Drew audience.
"With this, if you started reading these books when you're 12, you might be in college when you're reading number seven, but you're still reading it."
Appealing to an older crowd could mean losing some of the youngest members of the audience, Taubin said.
Sixty-five percent of the audience for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first film in the series, were families; that number dropped to 53 percent for the next movie, "Chamber of Secrets," and fell to 45 percent for "Prisoner of Azkaban." Almost 40 percent of the audience for the third film were adults who didn't bring a child, Taubin said.
Even so, the PG-13 rating did not appear to deter too many parents -- or children. At the Uptown on Connecticut Avenue, scores of children turned out for showings all day because many schools were out for parent-teacher conferences.
At the Regal Rockville, both parents and their children said they thought the more mature themes added flavor.
Andrew and Julie Egber, the parents of children ages 7, 9, 11 and 13, nabbed six of the last tickets for the 4 p.m. showing at the theater, where "Goblet of Fire" was featured on five of its 13 screens. "I'm actually glad it's a little bit darker," Andrew Egber said.
"It's more enjoyable for me. . . . If it stays childish, it's hard to watch, and the children who grew up on it lose interest."
In Alexandria, Kassidy Path of Lorton entered the packed theater with her two young children. Although her daughter Kacy, 6, had already seen the previous three movies, Path also came prepared: She allowed Kacy to bring along her hand-held Nintendo game and headphones. Just in case.
Staff writer Jennifer Lenhart contributed to this report.