Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The cheesiness of the Potter franchise doesn’t quite carry over, but the sense of magic is still as palpable as ever.
November 24, 2016
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the latest installment from the empire of J.K. Rowling. It's the first in a series of prequels to the Harry Potter films, that start in New York City in 1926. The film relies on the classic Pandora's box trope to drive the superficial layer of narrative. A magical trunk full of beasts is released upon New York and, in this case, Pandora is Newt Scamander, an eccentric British wizard played by Eddie Redmayne. Scamander, just in case you aren't as obsessed with the Potterverse as we are, is referenced throughout the Harry Potter series as the author of a foundational Hogwart's text book titled, you guessed it, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them".
Written by Rowling herself, the crust of the plot is a little bit slapstick. Essentially, after a series of bumbles in a muggle bank (or a 'no-maj' bank, as the Yanks would say), Scamander's trunk is swapped with the trunk of Jacob Kowalski, a typical, goofy muggle and aspirational baker played beautifully by Dan Fogler. When Kowalski unwittingly releases the cheeky beasties from the trunk, Scamander must team up with Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a low-level Magical Congress employee scheming to get her Auror stripes back.
This is where we dip down into the mantle of the plot and things get a bit more complicated. Turns out there are a faction of individuals in the community who believe magical beings are superior to muggles and that wizards should come out of hiding to enslave them. Without giving too much away, as the good guys race around New York collecting up their escaped creatures, Colin Farrell's character Percival Graves is lurking in the wings, trying to collect power. Also a church of fanatical, witch-hating muggles are seeking to expose magic. Also, a malevolent force is tearing around NYC ripping up side walks. Also, the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose. Fantastic Beasts' goblet truly runneth over with plot and this might not be a good thing.
The difficulty with this particular film franchise is that it has to be ambitious, since they've slated another four films at least. So this first installment labours to lay the foundations for the series. But the audience has no road map as to what is and isn't significant. There are numerous scenes, and indeed entire subplots, that could have been cut, seemingly without compromising any of the story arcs. Perhaps they'll bear fruit in later editions, but until then they're just kind of...there.
Fortunately, the film makes up for its pacing problems with cauldron-loads of charm. From the overtures of friendship between Scamander and Kowalski to the soft-core romance blossoming every-damn-where; from the timely Ron Weasley-esque notes of comedy to the practical use of magic, everything in this film is just so damn whimsical. Untethered from any pre-existing book, this film takes magic use to it's logical conclusion: domestic automation. For some unknown reason, Hogwarts students learned how to turn each other into teapots but never seemed to learn any practical spells that would make their lives any easier. This film rectifies that annoyance completely and for Potter fans it's immensely satisfying.
Also, we can't leave without mentioning the beasts, which as the film's title suggests are truly fantastic. The strongest part of the movie are Scamander's creatures and their various quirks – it's a handy plot device that the protagonist carries around a trunk full of talented beasts, and the script uses them to it's full advantage. And ultimately, that's the key to the film's success. At times it does feel as though the cheesiness of the Potterverse doesn't quite translate into this rather more adult world. Nevertheless, the magic that's powered Rowling's creations until now remains as palpable as ever.
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