Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ✋ Movie Review


Written by Thelonia

When you keep a story contained, you manage to avoid a lot of larger world-building issues. As the Harry Potter universe continues to expand through time and space, it threatens the stability of not only the new fare, but the old series as well.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the newest installment of the Harry Potter franchise, is a serviceable movie that gets weighed down by attempts to balance out heavy themes and child-friendly jokes, the legacy of the Harry Potter series, as well as the plot of the next four movies.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard come to America to release his thunderbird (not a euphemism), Frank. Pretty much immediately, the cavalcade of animals he carries around in his suitcase (it's bigger on the inside) get loose and wreak havoc in 1920s New York City. Trying to re-capture them, Newt runs into no-maj (no-magic, the American equivalent of muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who just wants to open a bakery and yet gets drawn into the plot via an unfortunate suitcase mix-up. Newt quickly gets apprehended by ex-Auror and Amy Santiago-alike, (Porpen)Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who spends the first few minutes chasing him as a way to re-ingratiate herself to her boss and head of MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), almost immediately then getting charmed into working with Newt's efforts to recapture his animals. Along the way, we are introduced to her mind-reading sister Queenie (who I can only assume was named for the character in The Wild Party, and is played by Alison Sudol), who almost immediately forms a close relationship with Kowalski (based mostly on their common love of baked goods, which I must endorse). All together, they track down Newt's beasts and then get embroiled in magic politics and a dramatic encroaching darkness that threatens both the magical and regular world.

At the same time, a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, led by one Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), is preaching throughout New York City about witches being both real and dangerous (and, after watching the movie, can you really blame her on that front?). She abuses the children under her care, particularly adopted son Clarence (Ezra Miller, sporting a highly unfortunate haircut), who is himself being manipulated via affection by man with a pidgeotto haircut and a secret that involves Johnny Depp, Percival Graves (Colin Farell), a high level MACUSA agent.

Why does it feel like every villain has this haircut nowadays?
The performances are mostly solid, though Eddie Redmayne's turn as Newt can grate on the nerves at times. This is not helped by the fact that though sheer incompetence, Newt manages to cause immense property damage to the city on his first day. I don't care how wide-eyed he looks as he raptures about the value of  animals (which immediately brought to mind lectures I've had from Vegan friends), I was fully on the side of the wizard cops when they took his animals away. When a twitchy, trying too hard to be charming Newt comments "most people think I'm annoying," you might find yourself nodding along. Once the "Newt screws up New York City" plot has ended into "and now, murder" plot, things get a bit better - he takes a backseat to his vastly more interesting and bearable co-stars.

Besides, we all know literally nothing will ever top his Jupiter Ascending performance.

Redmayne's performance also suffers because he is ultimately stuck in a half of the movie that has a far far different tone than the other (which also happens to be the more interesting and seemingly important half, plot-wise at least). The movie is really the twining of two vastly different plots: Newt's whimsical adventure and child abuse plot that ends in a literal explosion. The two are sort of ham-fistedly mashed together, so you are forced to sit through Redmayne doing a hippo mating dance almost immediately after seeing Colin Farell groom a young abused man by showing him some seriously skeevy affection in the form of really close whispering and head petting in a dark alley. The two have vastly different tones, and I found it difficult to engage in any sort of light-hearted whimsy when almost everything else was so very nihilistic. When Newt bumbles through capturing his little animal buddies, all I could think of was how many of those animals let loose from the Central Park Zoo are going to get shot, and how fucked huge chunks of the city will be for the next few months.

Perhaps they were trying to transition from the wonder of the original series to the apparently darker tone of the new series, but the effect was lost in translation, particularly given that the overall structure just feels like you've just sat through a summarized version of a better movie so that you can understand what's going to happen in the next movies.

It's like watching the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, and skipping out on the part of the movie where they actually start heading to Mordor. The characters have (more or less) been established, a few perilous endeavors have been escaped, and the plot is almost set in motion, though where it will lead is unclear. 

This man will probably do something interesting, at some point. Maybe.

And yet, because of the larger scope of the movie, as well as the wider cast, a lot of problems get raised that are not answered (or are answered in an unsatisfying way). The main example being the secrecy clause that hides magic from the muggles (sorry, no-majes). The argument for hiding the magical world of wizards from the rest of the world is the history of witch hunts. But despite the fact that wizards clearly have better technology than muggles and are also about as numerous (though that might be because of the largely empty New York streets), there remains this division.

In the larger scheme of things, the argument behind witch hunts is the same as in the X-men - discrimination against those with powers is just the same as discrimination against someone on the basis of their skin color or sexuality. But I don't know any gay people who can destroy entire cities with the power of their minds. What I'm saying is there's a valid reason for people to fear superheroes - or for that matter, wizards.

We don't know what the laws are if a wizard kills a no-maj. Who handles that? Unless they kill them with purely non-magical means, there's no trace there the police can follow. Does MACUSA have a murder division and where do they stand on no-maj murder? One can only assume it's not the most fair system given that apparently marriage is illegal between a wizard and a no-maj (although no word as of yet on the status of civil unions).

And all the gay witches and wizards had a good laugh at loopholes.
Not telling muggles about magic is not something that comes up so much in the original Potter series because when you're in a castle in fuck-all Scotland, the issue doesn't get brought up so much. But in a movie (and series) set in the middle of a very, very populated city, the issue is a lot more relevant. And the continued silence on the part of the wizards, whose magical hi-jinks end up destroying a lot of NYC, seems more malicious than anything (I know they 'fix' everything at the end, but you can't tell me with all that building collapsing, not a single person got hurt or died. Can't fix that with a wand, can you?)

This is another area where the prequel problem rears its ugly head. We know that by the 90s, the muggle world in England is still vastly unaware of Wizardry. So either we know exactly where this series is going to end (ie: no change in that regard), or Americans have managed to hide magic from Europe for about 50 years post the events of Newt's apparently 5 planned movies. And they can't end the next four movies with magic rain, so that seems difficult to accomplish. Still, I hope that, like the original series, the movies become more engaging as they go, and most of all, they either make New York cooler looking (I never thought I'd want a movie to be more like Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby), or get the fuck out. I've had enough of watching the Avengers smash up Grand Central Station. I've only got so much stomach for New York City destruction, and riding the subway everyday already chips away at that.

You can't fix everything with magic you bags of dicks.
This opinion is of course, perfectly subjective. I have friends who are more or less vivid fans of J.K. Rowling's oeuvre (the most contentious piece for even the most steadfast fan is the recent play The Cursed Child, whose plot involves Voldemort having sex, so have fun with that image), and they have so much affection for everything in the canon that they will be able to look over a lot of the problems that plagued me throughout the movie. So go in a fan, you'll probably come out a fan. Go in sort of meh on the general on the franchise, you probably won't be too sold on this new series, though that doesn't mean the series is dead on arrival. But the series may have a harder time moving forward if this movie is anything to go by. Still, we can all keep hoping for some of the original series' magic to come back at some point. This just isn't the movie that'll bring it back for everyone.

Fantastic Beasts and Were to Find Them is in theaters until December 15th.

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