A New Era of the Wizarding World
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens a new era of the Wizarding World that everyone had seemingly said farewell to for quite a while when the Harry Potter installment hit theaters in 2011. The success of that original franchise based on J. K. Rowling’s beloved books sent Warner Bros. looking for a new way to explore the Wizarding World that had made their coffers resemble an old account at Gringotts Bank and Rowling came up with this plan to revisit the era when a dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (ugh, Johnny Depp) was terrorizing the Wizarding community. Grindelwald is first mentioned on the back of Albus Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as the dark wizard Dumbledore had defeated in a duel in 1945. After his defeat, he was shut in his own prison Nurmengard until his successor in Lord Voldemort arrived to finish him off in his quest to find the Elder Wand. Those flashbacks crucially arrive when the veneer of Dumbledore’s nobility is most in question in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Grindelwald and Dumbledore were friends, friends who at first found each other’s company to be the only solace in their incredibly isolated lives, and that solace led them to the path of potentially adopting some dark ideas. In a fight, Dumbledore’s sister Ariana is killed and their friendship is damaged forevermore. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers after the publication of the final installment and that added another complex layer as to why Dumbledore waited to finish off the man he once loved in spite of the numerous crimes he had committed. Grindelwald’s critical role in this prequel series is only set to grow, but the film’s opening with him decimating a group of Aurors sent to capture him sets a dark mood that the film never shakes off, which gives it a more polished feel than some of the earlier Harry Potter installments while also being simultaneously jarring when the film focuses on an Erumpet chasing charming baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and forgets about the darkness it was so intent on pursuing.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based on the encyclopedia of magical creatures published as a charity initiative by Rowling in 2001, is centered around its fictional author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he’s in the process of writing that very book that would soon become a mainstay textbook requirement for all incoming Hogwarts students. He arrives in charming fashion in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures and soon enough, he finds himself arriving at a Second Salamers rally before his Niffler escapes to hoard its infinite pockets with treasure. At the rally he’s spotted by an inquisitive ex-Auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is seemingly looking for something that would restore her reputation and her position she worked so hard to acquire. She finds that opportunity but it quickly becomes much more difficult than she had probably hoped for the mission to be. Adding in her sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and the aforementioned Jacob, the quartet provides a fine addition to the lexicon of Harry Potter characters that are unique in their own ways without being defined by how people see them. They don’t always pop but there is such an earnestness to each of them that even if one isn’t floored by their characterizations at times, it’s difficult not to feel like one is on their side. It helps that the roles of antagonists are filled by bigoted men and women such as the Shaws and Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the latter of whom fulfills an especially dark role in a universe where the implications of child abuse are laid out more clearly than before. It’s the antagonists that are the weakest links in the film, their slithering vile natures feeling little more than barely explored, existing to make specific points. If the Second Salamers, for example, had received the screen time that was afforded the aforementioned Erumpet scene, there might have been a greater emotional impact when the twist related to Credence (Ezra Miller) is revealed to disturbing implications.
The themes of bigotry and neglect are found throughout Rowling’s work, from the child abuse that Harry suffers from day in and day out at the Durfleys to the discrimination against Muggle-born students (which becomes openly fascistic in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). The allegory doesn’t hold together completely, however, considering that there is indeed a physiological difference between Wizards and Muggles, but if not taken to that completely concrete point, the allegory against bigotry works quite well. Here that abuse is made abundantly clear with a belt being used to smack the wizard out of each child that is under the care of the austere Barebone. Her society was founded upon the predilection that all wizardkind was dangerous and that these witches had to be exposed and killed for the betterment of society. To the average New York No-Maj whose city is being torn apart by random, unknown creatures, she stands to possibly have a point. That aspect of the film isn’t given the weight it needs and as such, that promising narrative thoroughfare feels lacking, because we don’t really get a sense of what the average New Yorker thinks about this confounding turn of events (not that the film necessarily needed more plots to throw into an already crowded film). Where that narrative aspect does hit its mark to a degree, however, is with the story of Credence, whose narrative reveal is a great masterstroke of writing even if the emotional heft isn’t always there. Played expertly by Ezra Miller, Credence is introduced at the rally with Barebone before the film reveals what looks like a wholly inappropriate relationship with Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who wants something from him but is reluctant to provide the entire explanation of what it is that he is exactly after. Credence’s repressed magical abilities and the abuse he is inflicted with because of it forms a critical part of the film’s third act and it is there that the emotional heft Rowling was after with that particular storyline is able to actually hit the mark.
The greatest weakness of Fantastic Beasts is that it is rarely able to come together as a cohesive story. The performances are all fantastic, the set design is astounding, and Colleen Atwood’s costumes are just as gorgeous as you would expect them to be. All of the sights of the familiar magical word are delightful and the world here feels lived in. The creatures are an astounding delight and if it wasn’t for all of my possessions being under threat, I would buy a Niffler without a moment’s delay. The interactions between the characters (especially the protagonists) are delightful and a budding romance looks to deepen an understanding of what it means for a witch to marry a No-Maj when the legalese of her society vehemently forbids such a union. All of those positives are unfortunately underwhelmed by a script that would have functioned better as a novel. The overall story threads are incredibly well thought-out and they serve to add to Rowling’s credibility as a truly gifted storyteller (there are a couple of plot twists that are exquisite). The execution of those story threads, however, feels like the film’s script needed a rewrite or two to smooth things out before going into production. Newt’s adventures for example, which form the backbone of the film, often jar uncomfortably with the darker elements on display. It’s difficult to revel completely in Newt’s adventures with his beasts when the sequence before had a child having the wizard beaten out of him with a belt. It’s those moments especially that had me wishing for a tighter script, one that had a firmer grasp of how to handle the various tones in the film without making them clash in a jarring fashion or allowing one of the tones to simply overwhelm the other. The editing fails in a key moment when Tina takes Newt into the Magical Congress of the United States of America, rendering what ought to have been an awe-inspiring moment relatively moot. The whiteness of the main cast is also disappointing and even with their performances, this felt like a prime opportunity for Rowling to increase the ethnic diversity amongst her protagonists. The representation of MACUSA definitely did so and not just with their President Serafina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). Within that consideration, however, Fantastic Beasts is nevertheless a welcome return to the Wizarding World and Rowling still has that magical ability to wave her wand and cast a spell that could only be broken by Hermione Jean Granger.
Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: David Yates
Produced by: David Heyman, J. K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Written by: J. K. Rowling
Based on: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
Music by: James Newton Howard
Cinematography by: Philippe Rousselot
Edited by: Mark Day
Production Company(s): Heyday Films
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Dates: 10 November 2016 (New York City), 18 November 2016 (United Kingdom)
Image Courtesy: Geek