Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

| November 26, 2016

There is an uneasy dual identity to the whole Harry Potter world that no self-respecting super-fan might ever want to admit.  The cute spectacle of mail owls and Bowtruckles have always had to fight for space amid Death Eaters, torture spells and portents of doom fit for a horror show.  In the books, it is easier to manage but in the movies they often have to fight for space.  The cute whimsy of The Sorcerer’s Stone is worlds away from the dark battlegrounds of The Deathly Hallows, but at the very least, you can say that there was a lot of story to be drawn out in the books that came between.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn’t have that advantage.  It has a lot of ground to cover, a lot of characters to deal with and has to do it in a very short amount of time.  The results are satisfying in part, the cute sections seem fully formed but the darker story may leave you feeling that you might have missed something.

Based rather loosely on a 128-page side-companion to “The Sorcerer’s Stone” which laid out a sort of D&D Monster Companion for the Potter-verse, Fantastic Beasts has been stretched into a movie that tries with all its might to find an identity for itself. In many respects, it succeeds, but you can’t deny the similarity sometimes feels like you’re going through the same motions.

The setting is a fictional 1926 New York, some 70 years before Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall dropped Baby Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep.  Here we meet a sheepish mop-haired Brit fresh off the boat sporting a suitcase that shudders as if something is trying to get out.  His name is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and he has stopped over in New York on his way to Arizona to set loose at least one of the contents of the case.  Through a mix-up, he is temporarily separated from the case by a No-Maj (non-magical person), a cannery worker named Jacob (Dan Fogler), who opens the case and releases some of the magical creatures into the wilds of New York.

It is probably not the best time for this.  While New York of the 1920s is a hotbed of culture and influence and prosperity, it is also riddled with racial intolerance and repression.  Times are tense here as this repressive nature has bred fear and confusion among the No-Maj’s.  Threats of exposure of the wizarding world are breeding talk of an all-out war.  On the steps of the courthouse, a Carrie Nation-type witch-hater name Mary Barebone (Samantha Morton) operates an extremist group bend on exposing and destroying possible witches in their midst.  Meanwhile the dead-serious Percival Graves (Colin Ferrell) the director of Magical Security is searching for an escaped dark wizard called Grindelwald.

That’s a lot of story to cover in two hours and there are at least two stories competing for space.  The story of Scamander’s attempts to recover the contents of his suitcase is the more intriguing.  He is a sort-of zoologist of magical creatures, a Doctor Dolittle-type who wants to write a book that will help others understand them.  There is a scene in which he and Jacob enter the suitcase which is infinite on the inside and take a tour of the beings within.  This scene is pure magic as we get in touch with the various creatures he’s brought stateside.  There’s the greedy Niffler, a mole-duck-billed platypus with an infinite pouch who steals anything shiny.  There’s the Bowtruckle, a shy twiggy creature who is very good at picking locks.  There’s the enormous Erumphant, an elephant-like creature whose butt could cause as much property damage as Superman.  There’s the majestic Thunderbird, a fish-eagle thing that is destined to live in the wild of Arizona and whose new lodgings have brought Newt to America.  And the obscurus, a bizarre bubble of swirling black energy that is harmless on its own but dangerous when attached to a human host.

When the movie stays with Newt and his menagerie it is magical beyond reason.  The best elements of the movie are the simple ones.  I wish that the movie had been a bit more simplified.  Newt’s love for the magical creatures is kind of touching.  Eddie Remayne finds just the right note in playing a shy fellow who has obviously spent more of his time with animals than humans.  I was touched by his unforced approach to these animals and his quiet manner of trying to get others to understand them.

Also touching is Jacob’s story.  He’s a good-hearted work-a-day joe whose dream is to open a bakery in order to continue the legacy of his late grandmother.  He’s the “normal” in this stew of magic-users, but he’s not a fop.  I love that he is given a personality but more that he is given a tender romance with a flirty mind-reader named Queenie, played in a lovely performance by Alison Sudol.  She has a sweet personality and a smile that’s as pretty as a spring day – she should headline her own movie.

When the movie stays within those borders, it works beautifully.  It is when the movie tries to build (I suspect) the beginnings of a larger story for upcoming movies (there are four more films planned) that things get muddy and disorganized.  Graves is looking for the person who is currently hosting the obscurus while courting an emotionally damaged young man named Credence (Ezra Miller) whose immediate purpose to his investigation are not clear.

In fact, very little of the larger story about Graves or the obscurus are very clear at all.  The narrative history is laid out in an opening sequence in which we see newspaper clippings whizzing by, but if you miss one you might be denied need-to-know information.  I’m pretty attentive, but to be honest much of the darker subplot was lost on me.  There were moments when plot developements and characters entered and left and I had no real idea what was going on.  Here, I think, is where J.K. Rowling (who wrote the screenplay) and the filmmakers are hoping to build a series.  This is the first of a proposed five-installment new series and if that’s where they want to go, that’s fine.  But a world has to be established that’s a little less cluttered and vague.  To be honest, I would rather spend all day inside Newt’s suitcase looking around at the world he’s created simply because I hadn’t seen it before.  Of those scenes I leaned forward in wonder.  When the movie falls back on the boring sight of a monster tearing up the city, I sat back and waited for the sweeter side of the film to take hold again.  But that’s just me.  As I say, your experience may vary.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.