Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
David Yates (2016)
Apparently ’tis the season for what Chaucer called getting “new corn from old fields”: Hollywood is so skittish about trying anything new or original that they’re banking much of the holiday season on new additions to old series, or spinoffs of phenomenally successful franchises of the past: The new Marvel Comics movie, Dr. Strange, is certainly no Dr. Strangelove, but it’s the reigning blockbuster at the box office. There’s a new “Ring” movie coming out, a new “Amityville” movie, a new XXX movie, the “Final Chapter” of “Resident Evil,” plus a second John Wick movie and a second Bad Santa. There’s a new “Star Wars Story” coming out on December 16 called Rogue One, billed as a stand-alone film about folks in that famous galaxy far, far away who are not connected with the characters in the larger story. So why in the world not bring out a new spinoff of the Harry Potter franchise, a film that promises to be the first in a five-film series directed by David Yates, who was at the helm for the final four Potter films?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first screenplay written directly for the screen by J.K Rowling, though if you felt sorry about her not getting to sell millions of books beforehand, do not despair. The screenplay has been published and can be purchased even as we speak, in a nice hard-bound copy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You an even buy a copy at Kroger, on sale this week for $14.95. And just think of all the cute action figures of some of those fantastic beasts that may be hitting toy stores by Christmas. This is just in case you thought it was about cinematic art and not making a lot more money for Warner Bros. and Ms. Rowling herself.
But I grow cynical in my old age. It is almost certain that at least a good part of Rowling’s motivation in launching this new franchise is nostalgia for the Harry Potter universe, a story she created, built up, and drove toward an epic ending in seven hefty novels. It was a world that she, and we, played in for a dozen years, and it’s been five years since the last Potter flick. Wouldn’t it be great to visit that wizarding world again? And so we do in this latest film. Potter aficionados will recognize the name of the film as the title of one of Harry and Hermione’s textbooks from Hogwarts, written by the wizarding world’s expert on such creatures, Newt Scamander.
The story takes place in New York in 1926, where the young Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has come, carrying a suitcase full of magical beasts—which have been banned in the United States by the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Newt has come from England to America, he says, to return the most magnificent of these creatures—a giant Thunderbird named Frank—to his original home in the wide open skies of Arizona. It is never clear why he has brought all of the other creatures here, but when some of them—including a Niffler (a blue platypus-like creature that likes to steal shiny things), an Erumpent (a huge rhino-like creature in heat) and a Demiguise (a particularly difficult animal to catch because it is invisible) inevitably escape into the city, the plot kicks into gear. In his attempts to round up these creatures, Newt accidentally involves a Muggle—what in 1920s New York they call a “No Maj”—named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who just wants to start his own bakery but is drawn into the wizarding word when his case of baked goods is accidentally switched with Newt’s case of animals.
Arrested by a MACUSA witch named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who turns out to be a former Auror who has been demoted, Newt is brought before MACUSA president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and her chief adviser and enforcer Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who can’t be bothered with Newt’s case. Tina eventually decides to help Newt, and invites him, and his no-maj sidekick Jacob, home for dinner, where they meet her quirky flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who very quickly develops a mutual attraction with Jacob—a relationship that seems doomed because there is another law in New York involving relationships with Muggles: any no-maj who becomes aware of the wizarding world must have his mind obliviated—all memory of interactions with wizards must be magically wiped out.
All of this, the escape and rounding up of the magical creatures, is only the surface plot of the film, though. Running parallel to it is a subplot that ultimately becomes the main plot, involving a fanatical preacher named Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), whose mission at Second Salem Church (Get it? Salem?) is devoted to exposing and condemning witchcraft in the city. Mary Lou, who has three rather dark and strange adopted children, tries to get local newspaper editor Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) involved in her crusade, but he thinks she’s a crackpot. But Percival Graves is very interested in what’s going on, and is using one of the adopted kids, Credence (Ezra Miller), as a spy.
What Graves is most interested in is the phenomenon of the Obscurus: a young wizard or witch, when forced to sublimate his or her magical tendencies and deny their true self, develops an uncontrollable and incredibly destructive dark force that is released into the witch’s environment. Graves has seen evidence that a powerful Obscurus is present in New York, and suspects it is coming from the Second Salem Church. This is the real plot of the film, and the one that will likely prove the springboard for the four subsequent films.
This is actually the film’s strongest aspect: there is a serious point being hammered home about people being allowed to be themselves, and a condemnation of religious or societal pressures to keep one’s real self obscured or closeted. Real psychological damage can occur, the pressure that builds in such a situation may be explosive. However, this double-plot is also the major flaw in the film, since it seems to be two completely different movies, though there are a few connections that keep the dual story coherent. Still, this may be the hazard of being the first film in a series, whose task is to introduce all of the major players and the film’s setting to the audience, while at the same time trying to tell a coherent story that moves events along and sets up the sequel. But it might have been done better here.
It’s also something of a problem that we don’t get very fully developed characters in Fantastic Beasts. We don’t know much about what motivates Newt. Redmayne plays him as an incredibly shy academic—not unlike the young Stephen Hawking in his Oscar-winning role, but even more exaggerated. Yet we know nothing of his personal life until late in the film, when we hear that he has a picture of a former flame who has apparently dumped him—Leta Lestrange (a name that should drop like a bombshell on Potter fans’ ears: is this Beatrix’s mother? Grandmother?) but we know very little more than that. Waterston plays Tina as very earnest and mostly deadpan, but eager to get her Auror job back: it’s never completely clear why she was demoted, but it seems to have had something to do with her sympathy for Mary Lou’s adopted children. It’s Fogler who ultimately steals the show as Jacob. His lightly comic flair brings some real humanity to the film, and as the only Muggle significantly involved in the story, he is the audience’s surrogate. His scenes with Sudol’s Queenie are charming and sympathetic, and leave you wishing there were more of them.
Ultimately, despite its faults, this picture is worth seeing, and bears the promise of better films to come. It’ll be a good family Thanksgiving film. I saw it in 3D, but unless you’re bursting to see about ten minutes of animals breaking the two-dimensional plane, I wouldn’t pay the small fortune they ask for that minor fluff. I’ll give the film three Tennysons.