Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
It was absolutely inevitable that the Harry Potter franchise would continue. Not a question about it. You don’t make something that financially successful and let it actually end, not in this day and age. Hell, they already have multiple sequels for this lined up, and I’m sure the recent play will get an adapatation soon enough, probably multi-part.
And so be it. While my opinion of the Harry Potter franchise is considerably cooler than that of legions of others, I can still appreciate the movies. The last one was a very well made action drama, that made good on the dross that was Deathly Hallows, Part One. Now, David Yates is back for more, but with the vital appointment of JK Rowling as scriptwriter, something that gave me pause the moment I read it. Could the gravy train be propelled forward again? Was Fantastic Beasts the continuation that Harry Potter deserved? Or was all so much grabbing at cash?
New York, 1926: The Magical Congress of the Unites States struggles to keep the wizarding world under wraps after a series of strange incidents in the city, even while it’s Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) follows his own agenda. Into this volatile situation comes Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British magizoologist looking to breed some fantastic beasts, but an unlucky encounter with “No-Maj” Frank (Dan Fogler) results in Newt getting caught up with the law, in the form of disgraced auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), and the “Second Salemers”, a non-magic group intent on lifting the lid on the magical community.
I will say that I was looking forward to Fantastic Beasts, and the opening moment, where the traditional Harry Potter theme melds into something just a bit different, had me going. But then Fantastic Beasts almost immediately began to stutter in its first images, where I successfully guessed the plot twist that was coming later, and from there it was very much an experience where for everything good Fantastic Beasts was doing, it was falling apart somewhere else.
And the main problem is one that many of the big budget Hollywood spectaculars of recent years have had, namely that Fantastic Beasts is trying to be two different movies with two different tones, at the same time. On the one hand, you have what you would expect from the title: Newt and his band of friends going after the titular magical animals, a sub-plot full of impressive visuals, lashings of whimsy and a broad dollop of comedy. It’s mostly light-hearted stuff – Newt trying to stop a hippo-like creature mating with his new No-Maj friend, tricking a flying snake into a teacup, the many and varied encounters with a silver obsessed platypus…thing – and that’s fine.
But when it is put next to the other plot, the contrast is so stark as to be distracting. This is the story of magical power politics: of racial enmity, unconscious human subservience, and some real, full-on darkness, of the kind that Rowling only so rarely ventured into in the course of the Harry Potter franchise. This stuff is Gothic, and horror-like – one scene involving the magical death penalty being enacted was haunting to the point of terror – but you can’t have this stuff in a movie and then go straight back to the whimsy. Case in point: one scene where a particularly nasty beast kills a major character, framed every bit as an Insidious-esque horror, is immediately followed by Newt and his friends chasing the platypus in a department store. The effect is jarring to say the least.
Redmayne is doing alright here, playing Scamander with a certain awkwardness that borders on Aspergers: not at all a bad way to play such a character, more at home in the presence of his animals than with people. He only comes out of his shell a little bit here, but just enough that the promise of more in a sequel is still tantalising. He’s ably contrasted with Fogler (who I remember from Europa Report) as Frank, who rather steals the show as the audience surrogate muggle: the two strike up quite a good back and forth almost immediately, and God knows this franchise needs more muggle characters to offset some of its issues (see below).
Where things with the cast struggle is with the ladies, unfortunately. Waterston doesn’t really grab you the same way Emma Watson was able to, this sheepish government bureaucrat more Ginny than Hermione. Her sister, played in a slightly disturbing way by Alsion Sudol, grabs the spotlight a bit better, largely through the unique mind-reading abilities of her character, but in the end they are let down by rather forced romantic sub-plots with the two male leads: if Rowling has another over-riding flaw in her writing, be it on the page or in a script, it’s that she’s hopeless when it comes to picking and choosing her romance plots. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t need two of these.
The other major problem is the villain, or rather his role in the resolution. Colin Farrell does just fine as Graves (Rowling again demonstrating her utter lack of subtly with names) but there is a moment involving his character in the finale, and the well-noted cameo appearance of a certain actor, that makes Fantastic Beasts such a hard film to take seriously. I can’t say more without spoiling the film entirely, but suffice to say that a combination of terrible make-up, facial hair and accent contrives to make a late plot twist into a moment of ridicule. Once that moment occurs, and if you are anything like me, you will be glancing at your watch and eagerly awaiting the credits, but those take a while to come, as Rowling’s script exhibits another of her recurring pitfalls, the inability to write a succinct ending, as character relationships that haven’t quite earned it take a while to wrap up.
Of course, I have some sympathy for Yates and the people at Warner Brothers: how exactly do you tell someone like JK Rowling to cut down on things? A pointless sequence with a goblin gangster speakeasy? Sure, why not. A brief and very unappreciated comparison between American racial politics and magical racial politics? Go right ahead. A finale that undercuts the entire message that the “No-Maj’s” can’t be trusted with knowing magical secrets? Why not? References to flaming farts? Uh huh. I mean, I understand, you don’t want Rowling to sue you.
And that central issue remains in the film and its script, as it has throughout the entirety of the Harry Potter mythos: the magical users keep the muggles in the dark, about magic, about the horrible beasts that occasionally kill a few of them, about everything, and the film portrays this monstrous conspiracy, and racially tinged hypocrisy, as not just a positive, but as a triumph. Magic Hitler, a sort of background threat, is depicted as a crazed renegade for thinking that magic users should rule the world, yet when a grieving No-Maj father cries out for justice after a magical monster kills one of his children, we’re apparently supposed to root for the guys who want to wipe his memory of the event. The poor humans trying to expose all of this are portrayed as crazy child beaters. It’s always bothered me, and it never won’t not.
Visually too, Fantastic Beasts is a mixed bag. The actual beasts themselves are great, Yates and his team going with the good idea of starting with realistic animals and then changing them a bit – but not too much – to make them fantastic. Take yourself a rhino, and give it a horn that can inject lava into things. Take a platypus and turn it into a magpie with a bag of holding in its belly. Take a bald eagle and give it an extra set of wings and a large growth spurt. Nothing too out there, nothing unimpressive. The costuming and the magical world building is great too, not least a brief look at something approaching a magical UN (or would magical League of Nations fit better?)
If only the rest of the film, dark and Gothic to a fault, was as impressive. The action sequences get old fast, little more than the beasts slamming into buildings (so much crumbling masonry) before the magic police come along to zip it all away, while the human characters throw blue lasers at each other and teleport away anytime they get remotely close to actual peril. The stakes are low in Fantastic Beasts, unless you happen to not know how to perform magic, in which case you are essentially cannon fodder. Add an regretfully unimpressive and forgetfable score from James Newton Howard, a poor follow-on from Alexandre Desplat’s work on Deathly Hallows, Part Two, and the production side of things is just all over the place.
So, Fantastic Beasts is a poor continuation of the larger franchise, though maybe this is as much to do with my expectations as anything else. I loved Deathly Hallows, Part Two because it was a very polished action drama that was a blow-out for a lot of nonsense that had come before. I liked the look of Fantastic Beasts for its director, its cast, its setting and for some of what it appeared to promise. But in the end, the same old problems for the wizarding world are here in abundance: unevenly contrasting tones, poor villains and some warped racial relations only barely disguising a rich vein of elitism. Fantastic Beasts should be doing better with the elements that it has, but just doesn’t, the fault lying with a badly meshed story, some humdrum cinematography and that twist ending that almost ruined the film on its own. Maybe Harry Potter just isn’t for me, not really, a film franchise that grabbed me once, properly, but has now reverted to form. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).