Lee, Darren and Lawrence step back into J.K. Rowling’s creative world of wizards and magic; but can the series really thrive without Potter? Find out in their reviews.
Side-stepping a traditional sequel opportunity to the Harry Potter anthology, and even dancing around traditional notions of a prequel by writing a film with not a single returning character and only a handful of references to the original series; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be, for many kids who couldn’t simply hop on to Harry Potter: Film Seven – Part One, a whole new experience for them. And what is there to make of this madness?
People in silly coats travel around America, fire lasers from sticks, can teleport anywhere seemingly at will; the newspapers move, there are goblins and house elves and some people turn into weird energy monsters; that’s a lot of rules to throw at an adult, let alone a kid. Some of them don’t even remain consistent: do you or don’t you speak words to cast spells?
Needless to say, there’s a heap of charming overexplanation missing here, but it kind of works to the film’s advantage. Really, the wizarding world is already full of too many contradictory rules to really get bogged down on the hows and whys; best to just fire ahead, keep the spectacle, worry about the migraines later. And it also works wonders for returning fans, who don’t want to sit through being told ‘this is a wand, it’s tied to its user, it’s made of wood and something magical on the inside’; we just get straight into our next magical adventure as if we hadn’t missed a beat.
Playing like some sort of dichotomy between old fans and soon-to-be fans, lead characters Newt and Jacob make for an excellent pairing. In a fresh take for the series, our lead is no longer a starry-eyed wonderer of all things magical, but an adept student and working adult in the world itself, creating an immediate dissonance from previous entries. All is not lost though, discerning newbies; we still have a surrogate character in Jacob to keep everybody invested. Thoroughly non-magical but charming and pathetic, the screenwriter (original author Rowling herself) does a fine job giving the audience both someone to admire and someone to feel for in equal measure.
Tina and Queenie, auror (magic detective) and psychic alike, round the colourful bunch of white guys out. Together, they more-or-less stumble from set-piece to set-piece with only the loosest of plot threads keeping the whole thing together; which is, again, absolutely fine. The world is big and full of fun creative creatures to see, and the film shines when we get to focus on rounding the little anomalies up. Mating rituals with rhino monsters, hunting down gold(-and-show)-stealing platypus; the inventiveness of the scenarios, matched with the sheer absurdity of the physical comedy, will make for a huge win over the younger kids in the audience and might even get a laugh from the older kids too.
It’s when the film decides its own concept wasn’t big enough that there really is a problem. Wholly at odds with the characters and their own fun story is an overarching political narrative, complete with shady government officials and witch-hunting fanatics. It does a fair job buffing out the world a little, but there never comes a point where the two narratives weave together naturally, usually just brutally butting against one another to add more lore to the one film that really didn’t need it.
It’s a shame, really. Harry Potter long-term fans are sure to get a kick out of the prospect of ‘more, more, more’ and those kids who are now suckered in like the rest of us will be happy to know they’ve got a new long-roaming series of films to look forward to, but it feels we couldn’t even let the magic dust settle before we had to once more march towards a grim finale that, while terse and overlong, admittedly did work for the ‘Boy who Lived’ story, but without the natural metaphor for adolescence-to-adulthood, what’s the point this time other than to re-franchise an already crowded, evergreen franchise?
It feels like we’re getting ready to say goodbye to Newt and the gang already, and they’ve barely had a chance to get started. Could’nt we have broken character from the cruel, money-driven world just once and had a fun, self-contained adventure in our fantasy reality untethered to contract commitments and yearly overheads?
Still, that’s all grown-up problems. The real disappointment only stems from how good this film really is, and how weird and fun this adventure really was. Performances are often spectacular, the world vivid and interesting, the time period utilised well, the magic fun and creative, the beasts fantastic and hard to find. It’s a little dark and scary for really young kids at times, though for any kid over six or seven that’s just cherry to the chocolate frog.
See you next April, kids.
I don’t know if it comes across in my reviews but I adore fantasy. In any medium, I am easily hooked by the genre. Just give me a whiff of magic or an alternate world with David Bowie as the king, and I am there, waving my little fan flag and trying not to look like the addict I so desperately am.
Saying this, I am conversely hard to please. If I find a fantasy work disappointing, I am ruthless in my dislike, almost vengeful.
And so; I dislike Harry Potter.
Whoa, whoa. Hold up! Please put those pitchforks and torches away, Potter fans; I am extremely flammable. Yes, I don’t like Harry Potter. Yes, I’ve seen all the movies and yes I’ve read the books (most of them) but they just don’t grip me, they don’t excite me. They, to my mind, are the brightest example of mediocre. Something so cliché and borderline vacuous, that somehow embodies everything within a genre and also nothing.
And I’m not telling you this to rile you up, offend you or lead you on some egotistical power trip for views. I’m telling you this so you know how I went in, how I was trying to keep an open mind but still had niggles of dislike when I came to watch this movie and how I very nearly didn’t go and see it and instead planned to just watch Labyrinth again.
I’m telling you because I liked it.
Newt Scamander is a worker for the Ministry of Magic. As he is researching his book he travels to America, bringing his beasts with him, to add another beast to his collection (or reunite a beast with another, it’s not super important). But in America, magical beasts are banned; Wizards must not fraternise with ‘Non-magics’; but worst of all, there is a beast loose at the heart of New York, killing people and the Authorities have only one suspect: Newt.
There is a lot going on in this film: Eddie Redmayne plays our lead with that same style he is becoming known for, the bumbling awkward British man. And it works, Scamander is quite entertaining, his awkwardness is charming, paired well with his genuine fondness for the mystical animals in the work. The rest of the cast perform ably, not exactly given a large amount of characterisation but enough of one that you do want to know more.
And this is what works well here. The world feels more real, there are a lot of areas that need fleshing out, sure, but for the most part, I was drawn in, wanting to know more. So many questions come to mind just from the opening ten minutes. Unlike a bad fantasy movie, however, these questions aren’t critical, they didn’t spring up and ruin the flow of the work, but came after out of simple curiosity.
Are there bad points? Yes. In one or two scenes the effects weren’t as polished as you would think, becoming painfully obvious green screens for a second or two before snapping back to the stage. The romance aspect that is hinted quite heavily is unnecessary. There is an entire lack of subtlety to it that destroys what could be a genuinely nice romance between Newt and Tina but instead just comes across as expected. As if no one would watch the movie if there wasn’t a romance.
This lack of subtlety continues in our villains: Farrel’s character Graves could not be more obvious, and to the films credit it never does try to pretend otherwise but the other antagonist, a local Anti-Witch crusader, is just a bit of a trope. They are meant to be the driving force but each villain, while they hint of deeper and more interesting characterisation, are boring within the context of this film. I found myself just wanting more of the world, show me more of this seedy underworld that Ron Perlman runs, show me the fantastic beasts and where to find them.
The lack of subtlety, the villains, they are all part of a bigger problem: Sequels.
There is a lot here that is rife for explanation, for making more films, but because the film knows this it doesn’t show. Instead, it teases and flirts with the big picture, holding back its hand after it offered you more. Mystery can be good, but to deny the audience is hurtful. It doesn’t allow itself to just enjoy what it is; instead, it keeps pushing what it wants to achieve later. It’ll hold just a little too long on the beasts, pause just a fraction whenever the villain does anything that hints at something larger. It doesn’t seem able to just tell a story without foreshadowing something else.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m there. Consider me converted. There is a lot of potential for growth, for characters that play even minor parts (such as Voight’s newspaper tycoon) to become something more but it didn’t need to rely on that. I’d rather it trusted itself and its audience enough to know that we’d be back regardless of this forced tantalising.
Despite all these criticisms I enjoyed my time more than I ever thought I could. Rowling has proved, to me at least, that she can write. That there is a world of imagination and wonder contained in her works.
I just want the world to be let free, for the audience to explore them unhindered. Like the animals Newt guards.
I guess Newt and I have that in common.
[Lee and Darren’s review originally posted 22/11/2016]
Still some milk left in the ol’ cash cow, then?
I’m joking, of course. In my mind, Expanded Universes are an excellent solution to the story’s-over-but-we’re-too-scared-to-invest-in-new-IP conundrum. It’s certainly more palatable to the old solution of unwanted sequels or the slightly more modern technique of stretching existing stories to justify multiple films; this way we can have many films of diverse tone and genre, look no further than what Marvel has done. But while Marvel had a whole pre-written mythos to work with, J.K Rowling, here making her debut as a screenwriter, is blazing a new (-ish) trail specifically for the big screen.
So now we have Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a new story set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With an American flair this time, circa the roaring 20s. Our new protagonist is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), magizoologist, fresh off the boat to the Big Apple with his big case of undeclared, mischievous, and occasionally dangerous magical creatures; a case which is rather faulty and demonstrably doesn’t work sometimes but that’s alright because whimsy. Whimsy!
Speaking of whimsy, according to my readings, Newt himself is supplying 1.4 KSp (KiloSpielbergs) worth of whimsy, weapons-grade material. This peaks at 3.8 KSp whenever he’s putting the moves on one of the eponymous beasts, or a lady friend (the most fantastic beast of all, don’t-cha-know). Forget broomsticks, it’s a wonder he didn’t float into New York via umbrella. It certainly seems to recapture that sense of wonder in the earlier entries of the Harry Potter series, although time will tell if it will also descend into the angst-ridden slog it’s progenitor did in later entries. HP had the justification of puberty and Fantastic Beasts has a whole World War to look forward to with Grindelwald knocking about; we’ll get to him in just a minute.
Newt is joined by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Tina is a former auror who’s eager to please and whose demotion hasn’t quite sunk in yet; while Jacob is a bumbling muggle (pardon, “no-maj”) who acts as the audience surrogate for introductions into the Wizarding World for newcomers. I had initial concerns that Jacob would only serve as a platform for the delivery of slapstick physical humour (he’s fat and clumsy, y’see?), but the movie works hard to make him likeable in his own right. While I wouldn’t say he gets much in the way of character development, he’s suitably fleshed out for what is an otherwise simple character.
Unfortunately the movie commits one of the cardinal sins of writing: a conflict which could be easily resolved by a character revealing information that they already have and have no reason not to share, but do not do so because the screenwriters wanted drama. At one point Tina barges in on an important meeting to present Newt as the one responsible for the released beasts in the city. She lets slip that she knew about him for a day or two now and the Magical President says (not verbatim): “You mean you knew about this since yesterday and didn’t bring it to our attention?!” At this point any sensible person would have said: “Err… I did bring him in yesterday, but you dismissed me and Graves let him go, remember?” but instead we are treated to Tina yammering and offering weak apologies. You could argue that they would have found an excuse to nick her anyway, but you’d think she would at least try, considering she used to be an auror (a position requiring significant spine and aptitude to achieve in the first place) and especially since this is a setting where you can just be executed without a trial. But alas, the story needed her to team up with Newt and Jacob, so she just stood there like a clampet. Come to think of it, where was the security on that international meeting of leaders, diplomats and aurors? Wouldn’t they have stopped her at the door?
Although the movie does score points for being the first film where the protagonists secretly contaminate the water supply of an entire city and it’s unambiguously treated as a good thing. Whimsy! Whimsy!
It’s a charming and fun romp, with likeable characters and an (as always) engaging world. However, with a story that at times seems a little contrived (You have spells! Just use your spells!) and with a back-end open for sequels at its own expense, it falters to stand completely on its own. Perhaps upon the completion of the arc, we will look back more favourably upon it.
Also they better have Lethifolds at some point. Lethifolds are metal.
[CONSIDERABLE SPOILER-WARNING: NOW THAT THE SCORE IS OUT OF THE WAY, LAWRENCE ALSO WANTS TO TALK ABOUT A SPECIFIC REVEAL IN THE MOVIE]
While I have no qualms about his casting so far, his character design and introduction to the movie series are points of considerable concern (not counting that brief appearance in Deathly Hallows Part One). Why does he look like the villain of the Double Dragon movie? What’s with the haircut?
Do you recall how it took four entries in the series for Voldemort to even show up (properly, that is)? People spoke of him in hushed tones, whenever they could bear to talk of him at all. Even characters that we knew were powerful (and looked up to) were frightened of him. Despite being functionally out of the picture, his presence was undeniable, and it was scary.
If I’m remembering my lore correctly, Grindelwald is one of the most powerful wizards there is, and certainly the most dangerous dark wizard at the time of the movie. Unlike Voldemort, he didn’t stop at just Britain; he was all over Europe and America as well. He was magic-Hitler before the Big V was even a twinkle in his father’s eye, and his eventual climactic showdown with Dumbledore in 1945 (subtle) was according to witnesses at the time, the raddest thing they’d ever seen. While this movie takes place early in his career, this guy is supposed to be one of wizard history’s heavy hitters, a capital “B” “D” Big Deal. Yet, he’s been revealed so soon! Our formal introduction to him is him already being taken away, thwarted and captured by our protagonists who hadn’t even realising it at the time. This bodes poorly if they wish to make him in any way menacing for future instalments. Watch this space.