Monday, November 21, 2016

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: This is a pleasant movie, the first of an alleged five part series in the same world that contains, and by the same author that wrote, the Harry Potter series. This time J. K. Rowling went straight to the screenplay, but you can buy the screenplay from Amazon.

The title of the movie is from a quick-and-dirty small encyclopedia of magical creatures that Rowling published and sold for charity, but the movie is actually fleshed out from some tales briefly mentioned in the Harry Potter series: Newt Scamander, procurer, protector, and proponent of rare, mostly tame magical beasts, and Gellert Grindelwald, yet another Rowling bad guy who wants the magical world to assert itself as ruler over the muggle world.

The plot: This movie is divorced from the main story of Harry Potter. It is set in 1924 as Newt is at the peak of his procuring and before he has begun writing his book. Something nasty is tearing up the streets of New York City. Graves, a high-up in Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA, the US version of the Ministry of Magic) is doing some secret spying on some orphans who have been collected by a crank fundamentalist lady who is convinced there are witches that walk the streets of NYC. She provides them food and shelter, but also sends them out to distribute pamphlets and whips them for misbehavior. Graves has been meeting with one of the orphans, Credence, who also has a sister. Graves thinks that his sister or some other girl may be of special importance, or something. We find out more about this later, as it turns from the side-plot into the main plot during the last third of the movie.

Meanwhile, Newt arrives in NY with his bag of creatures. His bag gets mixed up with a muggle's, and the muggle accidentally releases a bunch of the creatures. Newt drags the muggle into his quest to find them, along with a discredited MACUSA enforcer, Tina, and her mind-reading sister. The four of them experience trouble, including Newt and Tina being sentenced and nearly put to death (!!!) by a harassed and apparently ineffectual and panicking MACUSA. They escape, collect the last missing creatures, and are then caught up in the Graves plot, the orphans, and the something nasty that is tearing up the streets.

Reactions: This movie is enjoyable, particularly for younger viewers who will take delight in all of the pretty creatures contained in Newt's suitcase. The first third of the movie actually meandered a lot as we hear a lot of slow conversations between Tina, her sister, and Newt, and slowly wander around the contents of the suitcase (for what must be a good 15 minutes) and watch creatures wrecking buildings (another 15 minutes). A young Harry Potter's delight in the magic world was one of the original movie's strength; in this movie, the muggle serves that purpose, to a lesser degree. The story is Rowlingian: a main plot and a sub-plot that switch places about two thirds of the way through. This make this movie feel more like a Harry Potter book than any of the Harry Potter movies did. The HP movies were usually over-rushed to cover only the action points from the books. Older viewers might feel bored during these early scenes.

The HP movies had a strung together overarching plot. At least starting from the fourth book/movie, you know that Harry potter must eventually face off against Voldemort, so there is an underlying story going on behind the scenes and a climax toward which everything is leading. This movie feels like a small vignette about a one-off event; only a cognoscenti would guess that this is probably the first of a five part arc about Grindelwald. The first Harry Potter movie(s) felt about the same.

In the original HP movies, Harry, Hermione, and Ron were cute kids whose characters grew and changed over each movie (well, Ron was basically a lump for movies 2-4). In this movie, there are no character arcs; the only change that we see is that Newt and Tina are keen on each other by the end of the movie.

The movie is beautifully shot and directed, well lit, with the usual HP magic abounding in the pictures and newspapers, the menagerie of creatures, and some Easter eggs. It lacks character arcs, an overriding setting in a larger story, and connection with the main characters, who are cute but not characters who one would identify with due to sympathy. But it is in other ways magical, the story is good after the slow parts, the good guys and bad guys are three-dimensional, flawed characters (although the main bad guy is not particularly sinister), and the merging of magic and period is kind of intriguing: the 1920s world was gender-divided, but the wizarding world isn't. On the other hand, it appears to be race-divided; there are no minority characters in the film. In the jazz clubs, where in the 1920s one could expect to find a racially mixed audience, the clientele is Caucasian characters and non-humans. The movie is good, but I expect the next films in the series to be darker and better.
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