Film #244: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

fbawtftdirector: David Yates
language: English
length: 133 minutes
watched on: 23 November 2016

I was a bit apprehensive before going into this movie, but I’m not sure why. I think I just was worried that it wouldn’t live up to Harry Potter, or that I was worried about how Eddie Redmayne would act in the movie. But I hadn’t really seen anything about the story except a brief trailer once. As many have noted, this is in stark contrast to the Harry Potter movies – almost everyone had read the book and could tell exactly what was going to happen next.

Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, fictitious author of the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, released as a Comic Relief fundraiser by J.K. Rowling at the height of Harry Potter mania, in the hiatus between Books 4 and 5. I actually had a flick through it again after I got home, to see if I could recognize any of the fantastic beasts featured in the movie – but in the book, they’re pithy little paragraphs, greatly expanded for the sake of the movie.

In the story, Redmayne’s character heads to 1920s New York, ravaged by an unseen eldritch nightmare, ostensibly to find a dragon breeder, but he finds that the magical agency in charge is much stricter about segregation from muggles, or no-majes, than the UK would be. At the same time, Colin Farrell’s magical invigilator is investigating the eldritch nightmare thing, and targeting the New Salemers, an anti-magic league, viz. a scary Christian woman who beats her children. But Scamander’s magic beasts escape his special bottomless suitcase and start rampaging around New York.

Compared to real segregation, I was interested to see that they already had a black woman president a century before the real America is even looking at the possibility of a white woman. Perhaps there’s no room for racial discrimination when you’re busy discriminating against muggles. I liked the depiction of the American magical world, but I felt like a lot of it was a repackaged version of the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter. Renaming muggles No-majes doesn’t really do much when you also don’t rename Aurors and Squibs – the latter in particular is also very British-sounding.

The mise-en-scène was generally good, too – including both the vistas of New York that we see in various scenes, but also magic idly working in the background. It’s also the stuff that made the later Harry Potter movies great to watch and the biggest welcome addition to the books. The CGI animals also work very well, and they’re totally cute.

I also really like the juxtaposition between the magic and non-magic worlds, which in Harry Potter, ne’er the twain should mix, but here, the characters head into a muggle bank, take ships across the Atlantic with muggles, and go on a rampage through muggle New York. My favourite character was Jacob Kowalski, whose reaction to pretty much anything is the antithesis of a magic person’s reaction – to punch it in the face, leaving several of the magic characters temporarily stunned, because they’re not used to physical confrontation. Tellingly, there’s a bit later on when a witch character tries to open a door with a spell, fails because the security on the door is too strong, but he can easily just kick it down, leaving me to wonder what kind of security they even had on it. It’s like how people make jokes that Harry Potter would have been over a lot quicker if someone had just shot Voldemort in the head when they had a chance. He wouldn’t have known what was coming.

I couldn’t really tell where the movie was going for a lot of its run, though. It’s not clear yet, until the final act, what the central conflict of the movie is. Redmayne’s strand of the story is more of a romp, and Ezra Miller’s side of the story is not clearly connected to the other strands. This annoyed me – I thought it could have had a clearer sense of direction.

Speaking of Ezra Miller, he doesn’t get a lot to do in this movie except snivel in a corner and cower away from Colin Farrell. And Redmayne overacts throughout, self-consciously Awkward with people. I understand this is through Rowling’s explicit direction, but at the same time, it’d be nice to see him not looking like he’s about to cry.

Now I kind of have to talk about the ending, so … spoilers!

The obvious theme of the ending is that oppression is bad – Miller’s character is oppressed and beaten by his mother, and this causes him to mutate into the eldritch horror and play havoc on New York. I think we can all agree with that.

And yet, when we find out that Farrell was Grindelwald all along, he is saying things like, they shouldn’t hide away their true selves from the world. He’s just like Magneto in that sense – why are these people the bad guys again? This theme resonates with me a lot as an LGBT person: we’ve fought hard-won battles for our rights, and we’re not about to give up those rights and go into hiding. OK, so Grindelwald and Magneto are also advocating to take over the world and establish a new social order where they are at the top of the pecking order, but the denouncement of Grindelwald’s views directly contravenes the lesson we just learned from Ezra Miller.

And as for Grindelwald, why the fuck is he played by Johnny Depp doing a stupid voice? I thought that ship had sailed long ago – not to mention the recent furore with his ex-wife’s rape and abuse allegations. I think Ken Branagh would have done a better job of it – too bad he’s already been used in the second Harry Potter movie.

Finally, the last scene was totally deus ex machina. Everything is sorted out in one fell swoop. Boring!

I liked the movie as a whole, though. It’s not as strong as Harry Potter, but it lives comfortably within the same universe, and it has a lot of pleasing elements. I’m looking forward to the next one, whenever it comes out, but I’m praying slightly that Johnny Depp loses the stupid voice if he’s going to be a prominent part of the new franchise, and that the story progression can be a bit clearer.

So how about you? What did you think of it?


One Response to Film #244: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

  1. Hans says:

    I watched it over the Christmas Holidays with my family. It’s a fun romp with a lot of exciting visuals. Not more and not less than I expected, so I was quite satisfied.

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