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Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016; Directed by David Yates)

In our age of formerly niche geek culture gone massive mainstream, with genre subculture products raking in blockbuster profits on screens large and small, green shoots of new material in lucrative franchise properties can spring from the most ephemeral of sources and expand into huge productions and releases. For evidence, examine a few of the highest-grossing movies of the last quarter of the year alone. Doctor Strange is based on a second-tier psychedelic/orientalist Marvel comics title; the latest Star Wars installment Rogue One is a sequel-less “anthology” release based on a couple of lines of backstory dialogue in the series’ original film almost forty years ago. And our current case is a prequel of the hugely successful Harry Potter films spun off from one of the titular boy wizard’s textbooks.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to its credit, doesn’t feel like a sideline to the Potter saga but a preliminary and tantalizing exploration of a separate corner of author J.K. Rowling’s potentially expansive wizarding world. With a screenplay penned by Rowling herself, narratively expanding her own creation with her particular mélange of delights, quirks, and flaws, there can certainly be no concern over deviations in tone or trangressions of faithfulness. Rowling’s screenwriting debut is aided immeasurably by the steady behind-the-camera hand of David Yates, who became Warner’s house director for the final four Potter saga films and balanced their mix of comic playfulness, whimsical wonder, and waxing adult themes with a high level of competence, if only with intermittent artistry. Having the rules of her wizarding world well-established by a series of films that nearly everyone who will see Fantastic Beasts has also seen doesn’t hurt; imagine if Rowling and Yates would have had to explain anew wands and Latinate spells or the magic world’s secretive nature and governing structure. What an expository slog that would be.

As it is, Fantastic Beasts expends most of its expository energies (and since this is straight from Rowling’s pen, those are ample almost beyond reason) detailing the unique sociopolitical circumstances of the wizard community in the United States in the film’s setting year of 1926. While a formidable dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (who appears at the film’s end in a Scooby Doo twist and with stunt casting I won’t divulge) wreaks havoc in Europe, America’s magical and non-magical citizens (the latter are dubbed “No-Maj” by the former, the Yank equivalent to the British term “Muggle”) struggle to coexist in a tense situation. The restrictive moral policing of Prohibition America is suspiciously extended to mostly-hidden wizards and witches by a harshly spartan religious temperance organization based in Manhattan called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, headed by the severe Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and supported by her brooding adopted son Creedence (Ezra Miller). Did you miss Rowling’s florid Dickensian naming practices and unsettling habit of associating sallow, angsty youths with dangerous darkness and violence? If so, Fantastic Beasts will be a godsend for you.

In response to such No-Maj distrust and hostility, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) closely regulates and restricts all magical activity and interaction with No-Majs (marriage is outlawed, even) under the purview of Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, incongruously channeling Marlon Brando more than usual), believing their safety from all-out conflict with the non-wand-wielding world lies in total secrecy. Some magical civil servants chafe at this tendency to hide in the shadows, especially Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is demoted out of an investigative position for assaulting Barebone in righteous frustration at her anti-witch fulminations. Yet the tendency persists, applied not only to human magical practitioners but to magical creatures as well, which are strictly regulated in the country and often destroyed.

This latter prohibition will find itself challenged quite strenuously when an awkward British wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) alights from a steamship in New York City. He carries a battered suitcase which is magically packed with the titular fantastic beasts on whose subject he fancies himself an outlaw expert and an awareness-raising guerrilla conservationist. The creatures begin to slip out and cause varying degrees of mayhem across the city. Aided by Tina, who is trying to get back in her bosses’ favour, Tina’s mind-reading flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and an aspiring No-Maj baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who witnesses much magic and whom Newt fails to efficiently mind-wipe (“obliviate” is the wizarding term), Scamander must recapture his loose creatures, the most mysterious of which is already causing plentiful death and destruction across the city.

This most dangerous “creature” is called an Obscurus, and is explained by Newt as an extremely dark and powerful accidental manifestation of a young magical person’s powers in cases when those powers are forcibly concealed due to fear, prejudice, or persecution. Visualized as a twisting, electrically-sparking shroud of a black fog uncontrollable by its youthful wielder (which becomes a noisy special effect in the film’s climax), the Obscurus is a classic Rowling magical metaphor, critiquing the negative consequences of abusive psychological repression of children who manifest any hint of difference. This unhealthy repression is implied to extend to (indeed, to be another facet of) MACUSA’s obsessive focus on security through restrictiveness, itself a clear social comment on contemporary security-state attitudes and policies in the U.S.

If this fantastic beast carries the burden of the film’s thematic dimension, then many of its entertaining sequences are organized around Scamander’s other escaped creatures. One of them is the Niffler, a chubby little platypus with a relentless yearning for gold and jewels. It’s the first creature to slip out of Newt’s case in the Big Apple, and its obsession with hoarding bling drives two delightful scenes of incremental comic disaster: it gets loose in a bank, snatching coins willy-nilly and bringing together Newt and Kowalski (who is there to obtain a loan for his bakery with delicious goods but no collateral), and later runs rampant in a jewelry store, with Newt’s bull-in-a-china-shop pursuit becoming steadily more comically calamitous.

Two of the film’s showpiece effects sequences are also focused on magical animal capture: Newt and Kowalski chase down (and avoid being chased down by) a bulbous, glowing-nosed female rhino-like creature in heat at Central Park Zoo, and with the aid of the Goldstein sisters, they attempt to corral a blue shrinking/expanding serpent called an occamy in the storerooms of Macy’s department store using only a cockroach and a teapot. It’s worth noting and praising just how whimsically odd both of these scenes in this major genre blockbuster really are. Yates and Rowling indulge in swellingly-scored scenes of wonderment in relation to the magical beasts as well, initially beguiling us through the neophyte Kowalski’s first view inside of Scamander’s magically-expanded suitcase, which contains temporary habitats for his many creatures, and then releasing a thunderbird named Frank above the city after the action climax.

The first Potterverse entry focused mainly on adult witches and wizards, Fantastic Beasts casts well enough but gets few performances of distinction. Farrell is glowering and suspicious as he ought to be, Morton and Miller both a bit too broad as the supporting villains, and Jon Voight shows up as a prominent newspaper publisher with a pair of sons who collectively represent the city’s No-Maj establishment at odds with its magical community (this whole subplot never really lands and would not be missed). Redmayne, an actor of cleverness, observance, and vulnerability, overdials Newt Scamander a bit, making him a muttering, eyes-averting loner who is clearly on the spectrum (though neither the wizarding or non-wizarding world of the 1920s would recognize such a classification) and who only really feels confident and happy in the company of magical creatures. Sudol is fun as Queenie, but I didn’t care as much for Waterston. Her entire bearing, appearance, and performing toolset positively shouts “model/actress” and Rowling loads Tina Goldstein down with too many inclinations, motivations, and concerns for her to sift through. Fogler, however, might be the film’s purest joy, a gloriously expressive humble shlub with equivalently wonderful gazes of awe and dumbfoundedness and a hilarious laugh, judiciously deployed.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite some awkward passages and pacing hiccups along the way, is a fairly pure joy as well. Leapfrogging into an entirely distinct era and location in her wizarding world with only the most tenuous connection to her established characters (a couple of familiar names crop up in dialogue, which dedicated Potterheads will catch with glee) in a lavish new franchise launch was a not-inconsiderable risk for J.K. Rowling, but she and Yates generally pull it off. This is a sophisticated and rich light entertainment with contemporary sociopolitical resonances that give it weight without dragging down its natural, good-humoured buoyancy and witty imagination. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, nor to look forward to further big-screen explorations of Rowling’s growing world with quite this level of eagerness.

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