Fantastic Beasts ad Where To Find Them, the first installment of the newest problematic saga, is here, so let’s look at what it has to offer.
To start with something positive, the main storyline with an obscurus is very well done. It wasn’t much hinted in the trailers, so I won’t go into details here either. But it has to do with the biggest direct danger to New York present in the film. It is an attractive story which includes a mystery and compelling character dynamics, and explores some serious topics, like the vulnerability of poor children to many different kinds of abuse. It introduces much darker themes than Fantastic Beasts would otherwise have, but it wasn’t enough to give tonal whiplash. It also includes such genre classics as creepy children, and well executed ones at that. The villains in this storyline are suitably creepy and repulsive. Everything is as it should be.
The other storyline, and the one that was advertised in the trailers, if of course Newt and other fantastic beasts. This is the lighter one, and also the one I found so irritating that I mostly suffered through the first half of the film, which concentrates on that.
Because, you see, Newt is a charming rascal who has no respect for the rules, but has a good heart. You know the type. To be fair, I should probably admit straight out that I heartily despise them. I usually think they are guilty of reckless endangerment and should be prosecuted. But still, I don’t recall another such blatant case as Mr. Newt Scamander.
For reasons I won’t reveal here, but which are sufficiently benign, he travels to the US. There, the wizarding community is on the verge of being discovered. That doesn’t prevent Mr. Scamander from coming with a suitcase full of beasts. A suitcase that doesn’t even close properly, so sometimes a few animals escape. But Newt will insist they aren’t dangerous. It’s all just very cute, you see! There are several scenes in Fantastic Beasts that should prove him wrong, but then all those scenes are also framed as humorous.
If the film was wholly a comedy, that would be fine, but why should we regard the endangering of human lives by the designated bad guy as terrible, while the one by Newt as just a bit of fun, if a little misguided? Because he does it in a light-hearted manner? Because he doesn’t have evil intentions, just suffers from an amount of irresponsibility that is beyond fatal? It’s the Game of Thrones syndrome: the good guys are good because they tell us so.
It’s especially visible when Newt is brought to face justice for his crimes and it’s framed as if those who want to lock him up are the villains. That is followed by evidence that there is no due process in the US wizarding world, because it’s not like courts were a thing known since antiquity, right? But whatever, it’s a nice strawman. Did’t you know that if the justice system is broken, it makes you right by default, whatever you do?
Ugh. I just really wanted that guy to be eaten, okay?
As for other characters, I desperately wanted to like Tina. But the thing is, the way she is scripted, she doesn’t do a single thing right. Or rather, doesn’t succeed at anything she tries. Except from getting that roach into that kettle, I guess. And in spite of being an ex-Auror, she needs to be rescued. That’s irritating, to put it mildly.
Queenie, the other important female character, was amazing, though. I am even willing to ignore the fact that if her level of skill wasn’t extremely rare, it’d have some serious repercussions for the wizarding world.
I appreciated the subplot with Jacob Kowalski, even though there were some issues there as well. Essentially, his character was a stereotype of a Muggle as the well-meaning wizards like Weasleys see him. Charmingly clueless, but essentially nice. I found that a little irritating, but I truly adored the romantic story he got, and most moments with him, really.
What I did not appreciate was the other romantic story. The mere fact that we have two male and two female characters and so the writers feel the need to have them neatly paired up in two straight couples in a film that has no romantic focus at all is compulsory heterosexuality at its most obvious. Especially as there was little chemistry between the actors, and they had to put in a terribly forced mention of a past love interest for one of them to be able to include some jealousy, which no one had asked for anyway. But love triangles are so great, right? (Wrong.)
But, well. She is a woman, he is a man. What are they going to be, friends and colleagues? What alternate reality do I live in?
None of the acting was something to particularly write home about to my mind, but I did enjoy Colin Farrell as Mr. Graves, and Alison Sudol was nice in her role too. I generally liked Ezra Miller, but I think he could have gotten more out of some particular scenes.
Back to being positive, I the fight and action scenes were fun, especially the good use of Apparition in general. This is what I always wanted from that method of travel. I also enjoyed seeing the local “hive of scum and villainy”, it’s a pity we got so little of it.
A big attraction of the film are the effects, and boy do they deliver. The fantastic beasts are truly fantastic, and I’m sorry that I didn’t go to see it in IMAX. It’s also a bit of an attempt to distract us with the shiny shiny from the awfulness of Newt, but well. For me, it’s another proof that the film should have been about Newt doing fieldwork. If he had spent the whole of his time in his suitcase, I’d have been happy. However self-indulgent those scenes were, especially the first one.
It would have also done away with the other glaring issue of Fantastic Beasts: it is possibly the whitest film I’ve seen outside of Austen adaptations. Seriously. I mean, there is Madam Picquery, whom I appreciate very much, don’t take me wrong. But I don’t get the impression that all the other people of colour disappeared from the US when Obama became president, so I don’t really see it happening with Madam Picquery either.
(Oh, and lest I forget, there is also one black woman executioner. Yes, seriously.)
Speaking of social justice issues, I have some questions about how okay their use of a thunderbird was. But I am absolutely not qualified to say anything about it, and I haven’t see any reactions from Native Americans yet.
Then there is the matter of casting Johny Depp as Grindewald. I have to say that I still don’t know what they were thinking. Even aside from his personal life, he’s ill-suited for the role in my opinion. For the man who charmed Dumbledore into fascist ideas, I certainly imagined someone a little more…well, charming. Ideologically, he isn’t quite what I thought based on Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore either. He seems to be too much of an all-out villain in all aspects, which I think is a pity – it makes him less interesting. But it’s also true that probably the last thing we need is making fascism look sympathetic, so…I can perhaps understand that change.
Overly, I really think the writers should have decided if they want Fantastic Beasts to be about how awesome magical creatures are, or if they wanted to follow the actual plot line in New York. The first would have been better served elsewhere and would have actually given the individual creatures more space than a brief cameo. The second would have allowed them to give some important or interesting points more space. Take, for example, that whole point with an obscurus in Newt’s suitcase: it could have and should have been a source of real worry for the viewer, and we should have wondered about it and about what havoc it might be wreaking. Instead, we get the answer almost immediately, making it effectively unnecessary to introduce that whole point in the first place.
Not that I think the two storylines were exactly badly merged. It was not entirely seamless, perhaps, but I’ve definitely seen much worse. My complaints are mostly because I found one of the plotlines so very, extremely irritating. But I also need to point out that I have an extremely critical approach to most Harry Potter films and that compared to them, this is actually an excellent one.
And now a few mildly spoilery observations to close:
- If Grindewald was this simple to deal with, why was Dumbledore so celebrated for defeating him in a duel?
- Did they really use an untried poison on a whole city? And we’re supposed to cheer them on just because nothing bad ended up happening? Well…
- And lastly, of course the Lestrange family as a whole was evil, ever since the 20s. Of course. God forbid Rowling forgot to reinforce that evil runs in families!
- Oh, and one more thing: hearing people call Picquery Madam President the whole time was…poignant.