by Michael B. Hock
I’m going to start my review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest from JK Rowling, by naturally talking about Batman. Specifically, the TV Show Gotham.
Batman, for most of his 75 year history, has been about a billionaire who runs around the city of Gotham dressed like a bat, because a bat-themed arsenal in the hands of an amateur is more effective than say, a well-funded police force. The TV show Gotham is a prequel to all of this, taking us back before the time of all the fun things about Batman, like a corrupt police force, gritty crime, wacky villains who may or may not be the Joker, and uncomfortable moments with a 12 year old girl aged up to be an adult, but all without Batman. Essentially, it’s Batman without Batman, destroying the quandary that’s inherent in Batman’s story: did Batman create his villains? Or did people getting mugged by a squawking man with an umbrella lead a billionaire to create these weapons, all while the police and everyone pretended not to know who could afford to build a bat-snapped plane.
That’s a long way to get to my point, but that’s what I first thought of with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first Harry Potter movie not to feature Harry Potter. It’s not as if Harry is merely a side character in this fantastic world, the movies and books are literally called Harry Potter, and this new movie is set 60 years before he was born – too early for even a sly nod to how James and Lilly Potter might be thinking of getting together one day.
To make it more interesting, we don’t just lose the main character, but we also lose England, and move the events to America, meaning what we’re getting is Harry Potter but without Harry Potter, Hogwarts, England, sly British puns… there was always an idea that while Harry and his friends where fighting the ultimate evil instead of book learning that more was going on, but the reason we weren’t watch it was because it wasn’t as exciting to watch Jim Gibbons studying for his magical exams and hearing small rumblings about how the boarding school in England was going insane.
So, basically, the first obstacle for this movie is: will it work?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is two interesting stories, actually. In New York City in 1926, the magical community is in a panic because parts of the city are being destroyed what is obviously a magical force. Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is seeking to contain the damage and any knowledge of magic for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA.. .it’s like the Ministry of Magic but more American). There’s also Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) who is a New Salemer, which means she wants to kill all witches and wizards, and is under the watch of the MACUSA.
The other story involves more of what we’ve seen in the trailers, which is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne at his most British) a magizoologist from England, who arrives in New York with a case full of magical creatures, seeking to have a better understanding with them. Through a series of zany hijinks, he ends up teaming up with a No-Maj (the American word for Muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who just wants to be a baker, and magical sisters Queenie (Alison Sudol, who should get her own spinoff) and Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Auror for reasons that are dark and we’ll find out.
Fantastic Beasts has a lot of what you’ve come to love from the Harry Potter movies and books: a rich history of magic and wizards that makes the world feel lived in. Work obviously went into establishing the workings of the Magical Congress, which in the 1920’s is extremely paranoid and doesn’t want a repeat of the Salem incident in the 1600’s. No-Maj’s are feared to the point that even having Jacob, who’s greatest ambition is to be a baker, is seen as a type of danger that must be immediately seized upon.
But it’s the reminder that this darkness is everywhere that speaks to the movie’s true strengths. When I first saw the movie, I was a little taken aback by the tonal whiplash the movie gives… at one point Mary Lou Barebones is beating her son, Creedence (Ezra Miller… more on that in a moment), and in the next we get the wacky adventures of a Niffler stealing gold and shiny things and framing Newt and Jacob for robbery. But then I remembered that is what has always made the Harry Potter books so wonderful… their need to be dark, their need to remind you that fun is to be had, but there’s always darkness around you. And this is a very dark movie, as we will discuss in just a moment.
Before we do, i have to discuss the performances, which are incredibly, particularly those of Fogler and Sudol. As an audience surrogate, Fogler does an amazing job of capturing the wonder and joy of a grown man enjoying the wizard world. i say grown man because these books are children’s books, and people tend to forget that there was actually a controversy about whether they should be considered “adult” back in 1998 when they first came out. (Controversies were lamer back then. We had the internet, but rants took much longer to upload.) But in giving us an adult look into this world, it was a nice acknowledgement that Harry Potter fans are growing up, but we can still find the wonder in it.
Sudol’s Queenie was simply fantastic. She was not the focus of the movie, and in many ways considered the lesser of the sisters – she’s seen first as working in the Magical Congress, but not important enough to do anything except bring tea – but proves herself repeatedly by putting herself into harm’s way to save Jacob. She brings out a warmth in a character that could easily be a parody or a one-note joke. I sincerely hope we get more of her story in the future.
Anyway… let’s get to the meat of this analysis with some spoilers…
So, remember when I said this movie had a bit of a tone problem? The wackiness of the Fantastic Beasts plot is tied into the Graves plot (he’s the bad guy. His last name is Graves. JK Rowling, for all her talent, is not subtle in her names) looking for what’s really tearing up New York: an Obscurus. These are the result of magical children trying to suppress their power, like say if their there mother was abusing them and was a spokeswoman for an Anti-Magic movement. Creedence is the Obscurus that is tearing up New York.
I wish they had focused on this story a little bit more, because it’s the perfect tie-in to Harry Potter. Creedence is an abused child living with his cruel mother who has to suppress who he is… almost like a young boy living under the stairs. The reason Tina is in trouble with the MACUSA is because of her Hagrid moment, trying to save him… essentially Creedence is what would have happened if Harry Potter went darkly different. Its a powerful storyline, and it’s hidden deeply in this movie, and I wish they had just taken some more time to explore it. Perhaps they will.
And that’s the biggest problem of this movie, in that it’s a great set-up. I have no doubt that the next four movies will improve on this, but this movie felt a lot like it was doing the work the books were doing for us all along, and that is setting up a great world that is rich to explore. There’s references to the Lestrange family, Dumbledore, and Grindelwald the possible love interest/enemy of Dumbledore. We’ll have to see where it is going.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie by any means. Its still well worth your time, and it’s a nice reminder that the Wizard World was bigger than Harry Potter.