“From J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world”
Directed by David Yates
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell
Harry Potter. Seriously, if you’ve been sufficiently living under a rock to not know, I can’t remotely do it justice here, but I will pencil in a massive rewatch and review sometime after I find the time for my Jackson-Tolkien extended editions marathon.
The important thing, vis a vis Rebourne, is that after seven books – made into eight movies, because the last book is always two movies – JK Rowling swore up and down that she was done with the boy wizard and off to writing grim and gritty detective fiction. And technically that still holds, as someone else wrote the script for the two-part stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and this film is actually a prequel without Harry or any of his immediate relatives (the nearest it gets is a photo of his godfather’s aunt.)
The Totally Unexpected Prequel
In 1926 the US magical establishment, headed by President Picquery (Ejogo), is in turmoil as a series of seemingly magical events, and the actions of dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald, threaten to reveal the magical world to the No-Maj (American for Muggle) community. Unto this came Newt Scamander (Redmayne), a hapless-looking chap with a suitcase full of magical beasts. A series of accidents lead to Scamander crossing paths first with No-Maj wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) and then with ex-Auror Tina Goldstein (Waterston), and his case being swapped for Kowalski’s.
As Newt, Tina, Jacob and Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) try to recover a group of escaped beasts, the magical attacks continue, drawing the attention of Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her puritanical, witch-hating Second Salemers, including adopted son and whipping boy Credence (Miller). A New York senator and son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Voigt) is killed by an unseen entity and Newt’s creatures are blamed, especially by senior Auror Percival Graves (Farrell). Newt, however, realises that the culprit is an Obscurus, a dark force created by a child suppressing their magic out of fear, and together with the Goldsteins and Kowalski must track down the Obscurus and uncover the truth behind Graves’ search for its host before war erupts between the magical and on-magical worlds.
What’s wrong with it?
The Magical Congress of the United States of America is referred to as MACUSA, more or less rhyming with ‘Yakuza’, which coupled with the Aurors’ leather longcoats and fedoras just made me think they were an organised crime syndicate every time it was mentioned.
So… the orthodox magical community is basically out to exterminate all magical creatures? I think I might be down with Grindlewald on this one.
For a maverick ex-Aurora, Tina is disappointingly passive in a lot of the action scenes, just looking on while Newt throws the Swooping Evil around like a fucking badass.
For much of the length of the film, there are almost three entirely separate films rolling along together: Gellert Grindlewald and the Bad Shit That’s Happening; Porpentina Goldstein and the Second Salem Preservation Society; and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While they do link up in the end through common characters, there is a marked sense that there is plot for this film and plot for the arc.
ETA: I know some people are pretty angry that Newt travelled by boat, but it makes a lot of sense to me that long-range (for example trans-Atlantic) apparation would be prohibitively taxing, and I’m pretty sure portkeys are registered. It is a bit of a stumper that there’s no wizard on customs duty, but maybe that’s why people like Newt travel Muggle; to avoid the portkey customs.
What’s right with it?
The beasts are, as they would have to be, pretty incredible. Newt’s suitcase of holding is awesome and I want one.
The American wizard street fashions were pretty damned sweet, being essentially period costume with hella flared sleeves.
I liked that the American magical community was racially integrated in 1926, but channeled all of the period’s historical racism into their absolute segregation of magical and non-magical.
When Graves gives Credence his symbol, it’s never spelled out that it’s the mark of the Deathly Hallows; the audience is trusted to notice.
It does emerge in retrospect that Tina kind of dueled Gellert Grindleward (who, if I’ve got my timeline straight, is pretty solidly in the middle of his ‘master of the Elder Wand’ stage, and who looked set to take down an entire division of Aurors single-handed) to a standstill, so there’s that.
How bad is it really?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than makes good on its promise of a look at an earlier era of the wizarding world, although not so early that Albus Dumbledore isn’t teaching at Hogwarts already. Magical New York is impressively realised, and the creatures are simply fabulous. There are many… troubling aspects of the background, in particular the interaction of MACUSA law with the existence of No-Maj born witches and wizards, but honestly most of them only come out as a result of the liberal application of fridge logic. In and of itself it’s a fun period-lite magical adventure.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The big denouement is impressive as hell, with the thunder bird raining untested forgetfulness venom down on New York while the Aurors repair the damage from the magical battles, including one flash bastard prancing about on a half-finished skyscraper and clearly having way more fun than all of the others.
What’s up with…?
- Names? The film has the same sort of split of magical and non-magical names as the HP series (Grindelwald, Picquery and Scamander suggest magical heritage, Goldstein and Graves not so much), but according to MACUSA law, pretty much everyone ought to have a Pureblood name. No association with No-Majes means no mixed marriages, so getting on for the only No-Maj names will belong to No-Maj born witches and wizards who presumably must be swiped from their parents (and wiped from their minds) at an early age to prevent that 3A interaction.
- Holy shit, MACUSA is pretty fucking evil by implication.
- I mean… Tina was busted to wand licensing – and seriously? America is the one with the harsh weapons laws? – for assaulting a No-Maj, but it is policy to wipe the memory of every No-Maj who encounters magic; no exceptions. How is an obliviate spell not an assault?
- And if they have this statute of secrecy locked down so tight, how do the Second Salemers know not only that witches use wands, but what those wands look like?
- What the hell is up with security protocols at MACUSA? Seriously, Tina twice walks directly into the presence of the President, once while she is in session with the entire International Confederation of Wizards.
- So not only is there only one British school of witchcraft and wizardry, but there is only one American school? Like… for the entire United States, and possibly Canada and Mexico as well. It must have a big dining hall. Admittedly, the film doesn’t state that it’s the only one; that’s expanded canon. Maybe Ilvermore has several campuses.
- If Newt never graduated, where did he get his wand? When Hagrid got the boot for basically the same thing as Scamander, it seems, his wand was broken and had to be patched and hidden in a brolly. (ETA: Apparently Rowling is all over this one at least.)
- Dark wizards? It’s never discussed, but apparently at some point dark magic turns you into a big freaking weirdo. I’d always assumed that Voldemort was the way he was as a result of cheating death, but Grindleward is clearly going the same way.
- And what’s the deal with American house elves? If witches make the coffee at MACUSA, I’m assuming that American magical community doesn’t have the same universal institution of elvish indenture, so what the hell, Hogwarts?
Production values – Swish, and there’s really no excuse for them not to be. 4
Dialogue and performances – For a first-time screenwriter – Rollins? Rowing? Something like that… – the dialogue is far from terrible. It’s a little clunky in places (although in retrospect a lot of these could actually rather serve as reminders of the opposed social awkwardness of Newt, who doesn’t get people, and Queenie, who as a legillimens gets them all too well,) but also has some little gems, like Newt mentioning his postal application for a wand permit while gazing around at the feral paperwork in the MACUSA basement. The actors are pretty much universally good; I can’t even really find anything to niggle in Eddie Redmayne’s performance. I feel like I’m letting him down somehow. 6
Plot and execution – One of the greater flaws of the film is its mix of individual and arc plot, and the weak integration of the two. Both strands are well-handled in and of themselves, but they don’t coexist organically until late in their combined narrative. 9
Randomness – Kleptomaniac echidnas and Eddie Redmayne flirting with a magic rhino. What the hell? 7
Waste of potential – This film had a lot of expectation riding on it, and while it doesn’t necessarily meet that, it doesn’t suck either. 5