On my right wrist is a scar given to me by the seventh Harry Potter book. I was abroad at the time, at a language school. The book had just launched, and my Turkish roomate (not my French or Croatian ones) got a copy. I asked him if I could read it. I would finish it in a day. It’d be great. He threw it my way, the corner landed in (not on) my wrist. So, now I have a scar.
I think about that scar at least once a month, and then I think about Harry Potter. I like Harry Potter, though not as much as some people I know. I read all the books as they were released, and I saw 7 of the 8 movies. (For whatever reason, I never watched Deathly Hallows Part 2.) I did not read the script of the stage play, though I do intend to see it when it inevitably comes to Broadway. I knew that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was coming, the beginning of an Expanded Universe for the franchise. I didn’t follow it too closely, because I always assumed that I would see it and didn’t feel like I needed to spoil it for myself.
So I went in basically blind, knowing only that it was set in America some number of years before the events of the books and that Eddie Redmayne was starring. And so for the first time, I got to see the world of Harry Potter without preconceived notions or real expectations. And you know? It wasn’t bad.
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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director: David Yayes
Release Date: November 18, 2016
In 1920s New York City, muggles are called “nomags,” a shortening of “no magic.” I mentioned this to a friend, who said that sounded more offensive than “muggle.” I disagreed. I think we’re desensitized to the word muggle, but it sounds pretty mean to me. (Not mudblood level, obviously (that one’s awful).)
In 1920s New York City, the President of America’s magic society is a woman, which means that this fanciful version of 1920s America is more progressive than actual 2016 America (though this wasn’t 2016 New York City’s fault). In fact, there are a lot of females in power in 1920s magic world. To some degree, it feels like the least realistic thing about the entire film. But that’s neither here nor there.
In 1920s New York City, Newt Scamander (a very socially awkward Eddie Redmayne) causes mayhem. He carries with him a suitcase. In the suitcase is a whole host of fantastic beasts. Unfortunately, some of them escape. He has to find them. Ultimately, that isn’t what the movie is about. It’s simply a way to get him entangled with the other zany characters, primarily two of them: Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a nomag who doesn’t get Men In Black mind-zapped and so is forced along on a wild adventure featuring magic and things, and Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an ex-Auror who brings in Mr. Scamander for causing problems (mostly by not Men In Black mind-zapping Mr. Kowalski). Some others are involved in various forms.
Also, there’s Colin Farrell AKA Percival Graves AKA a guy who can do magic with just his hand. Someone told me Voldemort could also do that (I know house elves can), but I don’t remember that. I just remember him using his wand. Then again, Graves also uses his wand. And I have some questions.
– Why can he magic without a wand, and why does no one seem impressed by that ability?
– Why does he use a wand sometimes even though he doesn’t need one?
– Is it because he’s dueling, and he can only deflect magic with a wand?
– Someone just shouted “Take away his wand.” Why? Would that impact him in any meaningful way?
I have come to believe (in large part thanks to Film Crit Hulk) that if you only question something after the fact, then it doesn’t ultimately matter. Many great films fall apart under close inspection, but in the moment, you’re too caught up to notice or care. And so the movie is successful. On the other hand, if you think about the problems, that mean the film has failed to either keep my interest enough for me to not think about it, hide it well enough behind some sort of pseudo-logic that can keep me going for two hours, or both. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a little bit of both. I was constantly asking questions throughout the film (in my head, I’m not a monster), and precisely none of them were answered. I’m not going to list them all here for you, but many of them boil down to, “Wait, so how does that work?”
Nowhere is this more problematic than with the film’s actual conflict: An Obscurious (sp?) is wreaking havoc on the city. Who is it? How can they stop it? New Scamander might know the latter but no one knows the former. It’s probably related to the creepy anti-witch cult that the film keeps cutting back to, because that’s the only reason we would be spending so much time with them. Anyways, once things are revealed and we see the Obscurious at work, the whole thing kind of falls apart. Someone might be able to explain this using overly technical language that will confuse me into thinking maybe it made sense, and others will say that it doesn’t matter, this is for children, and I should stop being such a spoilsport… but really, I have so many questions relating to literally everything about it, and none of the answers I come up with are satisfying.
The Harry Potter books have issues, but they’re satisfying. They scratch an itch and do what you want them to do. Much of the time, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does too. Jacob Kowalski, for example, is a great character, and pretty much every scene with him in it was at least good if not great. I dunno why I liked him so much, but he’s probably my favorite character in any Harry Potter story. Maybe it’s because he’s a Nomag and I liked seeing how a non-magical person really reacts to all of the craziness? I dunno. He’s great.
The actors in general are quite good. No more weird, wooden performances from children who were chosen before anyone knew if they could actually act. The dialogue, written by J.K. Rowling herself, is also fine. Many of my friends who did read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child complained that the dialogue was clearly not written by Rowling, so I expect they will enjoy this more. The pacing is off, and the movie is about 20 minutes too long, but those 20 minutes of meh are scattered throughout and not in one big, boring chunk. And though some moments may drag, some genuinely excite. There are a couple of thrilling action sequences (even if they’re a bit contrived), and there are some genuinely inventive things, like some of the weirder Fantastic Beasts.
I liked seeing the expansion of Harry Potter. I’m glad that this isn’t another Harry Potter story. I like the idea of a series of spin-offs for the same reason I’m excited about all of the Star Wars Stories that aren’t numbered episodes. And for all of my issues with this first installment, there are definitely things to like, and the good outweighs the bad. If you can see past the massive gaps in logic and just say “The wizard did it” and be content with that, you may very well love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If you thought Harry Potter was dumb, this sure as hell won’t change your mind. But if you’re a fan (even a lapsed one), you should most certainly check it out.