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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Film review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), directed by David Yates

tl;dr: It’s fun and all, but umm …

(Setting the general scene, but without giving away the actual plot.)

We start off setting the scene with some newspaper articles about Grindelwald (while you don’t see it yet, he’s actually played by Johnny Depp, which is, err, an interesting choice?) – you know, Dumbledore’s BFF/boyfriend back when they were teenagers, a.k.a. the-baddie-before-Voldemort – so we know that this is set in The Past. The roaring 1920s, actually, and then we see Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving by ship at Ellis Island, New York, because wizards in the past hadn’t invented Portkeys or couldn’t Apparate that far or something.

He finds himself outside a bank, where a group of anti-witchcraft nutjobs, headed by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), are holding court. Bad things are afoot in New York City, folks! You’d better be careful. Unfortunately, Newt’s bag is not of a particularly good construction and a little creature sneaks out. Cue Newt trying to go after it.

Meanwhile inside the bank a muggle (“No-Maj” as the Americans call them, we’re told, CRINGE) called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is waiting to speak to the bank manager about a loan to set up a bakery. Many paths are suddenly crossed. Hijinks ensue. Newt gets to see the inside of MACUSA (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) thanks to Tina (Katherine Waterston), a MACUSA witch who happened to catch the last bit of said hijinks.

We’re introduced to Graves (Colin Farrell), who’s some kind of Auror boss or something, the magic equivalent of the president, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo, because the Magic World is okay with women AND people of colour being the boss!), and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).

Also starring Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, Jon Voight as newspaper owner Shaw, Ronan Raftery as his son Langdon Shaw and Josh Cowdery as his other son Senator Henry Shaw Jnr. Though entirely CGI, Ron Perlman appears as unpleasant goblin Gnarlack. Then there are a host of other magical creatures great and small, and everyone is in love with that thieving little niffler.

The first thing … no, okay, fair’s fair, the SECOND thing that crossed my mind watching this film was “oh no, now EVERYONE who joins SH will want their characters to either be mind-readers or that-thing-I-won’t-mention-to-avoid-spoilers! #fml” The FIRST thing that crossed my mind was to fangirl slightly over Colin Farrell. The funny thing about Graves is that when he was first on screen the instant reaction was “ah, he’s a bad guy”. Then the reaction is “no, he seems kind of a good guy”, followed by “actually, he’s such a bureaucrat, and you know who else was a bureaucrat? Dolores Umbridge, and she was NOT a nice person!” Basically, it’s fun that Graves has layers like that.

Tina also has layers, as it turns out. (Queenie, bless her, is more of an open book.) Not to go into details here, but it seems very clear she’ll make an appearance or two later on in the series. (Which was one film, then three films, now a series of five films, because lotsa lotsa money “you can’t tell this story in only three films”.) They’ve already said that the series won’t actually all be about Newt either, and it will span 19 years (what’s the deal with “19 years” anyway?), which means the end will be in the mid-1940s … And what happened in the mid-1940s according to Harry Potter’s chocolate frog card in the very first Harry Potter novel? Albus Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald. Since the film’s opening scenes is about Grindelwald, my guess is that the plot arc is going to be about defeating him.

Anyway.

After seeing this film for the first time I couldn’t make up my mind about it. Everything was so new. It’s not like the Harry Potter books, where you already know what’s going to happen (if you’ve read said books) and want to see it on screen, but here you’re completely in the dark and I think it was difficult to gain an impression from it because of that, and because it’s part of a much larger universe and has to be seen in the context of that instead of as “just a film”. As “just a film” it’s entertaining, funny, charming, has lots of fantastical animals, and is good fun. As part of the Potterverse? Uh … I was stumped, and couldn’t decide if it was disappointing or exceeded expectations. When we saw it again some time later, to have something to do aboard a long ferry journey, I knew exactly what was going to happen and could focus more on how it fits into the Potterverse.

Considering the whole debacle about how Ilvermorny (US version of Hogwarts) was set up and specifically Rowling’s use (read: appropriation) of Native American traditions, it’s all well and good that they don’t go into detail about the school or how magic is viewed in the States – well, aside from the New Salemers’ “witchcraft is of the devil” and MACUSA’s “fraternising with muggles is VERBOTEN”. I guess we won’t hear a lot more about it either, seeing as how the sequel will apparently be set in France. (Making shit up that completely contradicts everything that’s been said previously about Beauxbatons in trois, deux …)

At the same time, while the film does have a fair amount of issues, it’s also hugely exciting to see the WB logo sweeping past while hearing Hedwig’s Theme again, just like old times. The wand-waving! The spells! The portable hole suitcase! The magical creatures! The period costumes! It’s a lot of fun. It’s like meeting an old friend, but at the same time … it’s different.

Harry Potter has been with me since I was 18 (nearly half my life), and the Potterverse means a lot to me, but I guess I feel more jaded these days. Instead of reacting to the news that it’s going to be five films instead of one or three, I didn’t go “OMG that’s AWESOME!” but rather “and the money had nothing to do with it? Suuuure”. I hope the next four films will be popular enough to all get made (the decision to split the final Divergent novel into two films was perhaps not such a great idea after all, as the final part is now in limbo based on the third film’s poor box office performance), and I’ll still go to the cinema, but was Fantastic Beasts the best thing since they invented chocolate frogs? No. Am I still going “oooooh! Touchy looky!” when seeing related books and merchandise in Costco? Yes. (I would’ve gone for the script, I think, but money’s a bit tight right now, and I didn’t see anything about Graves in the books with shiny pictures.)

I want to see more of Tina and Queenie (and Jacob, but I guess we sort of find out what happened there) and I hope Newt gets a better lock on that suitcase of his so that the sequel doesn’t just end up being a repeat of the first “but this time it’s different because it’s PARIS”. It’s going to be like a two year wait for the next film as well (and the next one after that), and the question is how long the interest for this new solar system of the Potterverse will hold the attention of the general population and not just the most Hufflepuff level of loyalty of diehard Potterheads. Time will tell.

It was still a fun film, entertaining, dark, funny, charming (although could Eddie Redmayne as Newt be anything but?), silly and plot-holey but at the same time sort of wonderful as well.

4 out of 5 adorable little twigs.

(UPDATE 2021: 🙃 Yeah, no. The only reason I’ll watch it when it’s on TV now is 1920s New York and Graves.)

Traxy

An easily distracted Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel, when there's not a plague on.

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