Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Heyday Films/Warner Bros., 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As just about the whole world knows by now, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the latest work by British author Joanne K. Rowling set in the Harry Potter universe, though she insisted in an interview about the film that it is neither a sequel nor a prequel to the Harry Potter books but simply another story set in the same fictional universe — though apparently there are direct references to the film’s central character, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) — the character name is an obvious pun on the fact that a newt is the larval form of a salamander — and the book he wrote, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in 1927, a year after the events of this film take place. What makes this different from the eight Harry Potter films, based on Rowling’s seven novels in the series (the last one was divided into two separate films, a practice the makers of the Hunger Games movies also adopted), is that Rowling wrote the script herself and she conceived it as a screen original, though a book has since been published. (I don’t know if that is simply a publication of the screenplay or if Rowling novelized it.) What’s more, she originally intended Fantastic Beasts as the first of a trilogy, though (no doubt encouraged by Warner Bros., who are obviously hoping for a series of box-office winners that will continue the Potter franchise even though Rowling insists that Potter’s own saga is finished) she later expanded her plans to encompass a five-part series.

The film was widely reported as a prequel to the Potter series, since it takes place in New York in the 1920’s (70 years before the Potter books themselves, which are set in the U.K. in the 1990’s, when Rowling started writing them), but Rowling has said Fantastic Beasts “is neither a prequel nor a sequel to the Harry Potter series, but an extension of the wizarding world. Newt’s story will start in New York, seventy years before Harry gets under way.” Charles and I wondered if we’d be hopelessly confused by Fantastic Beasts because for some reason the whole Harry Potter cycle eluded us — neither of us have seen a Harry Potter movie or read any of Rowling’s books — but the film turned out to be occasionally confusing but mostly easy to follow. It begins with Newt taking an ocean liner from his native Great Britain to New York City with a small suitcase in hand containing the titular fantastic beasts, who among other things can shrink themselves to fit the available space. He goes through customs, whose officials are as mean-spirited and officious as they are now, and when the customs inspector insists on inspecting the inside of his bag, Newt hits a lever on its side that says “Muggle-Worthy” and so when it opens, all we and the inspector see are perfectly innocuous personal possessions. (“Muggles” is the term used in the Harry Potter books to mean ordinary people without magical powers, but in this U.S.-set offshoot of the franchise they’re called “No-Maj” — short for “no magic” — instead, perhaps because in America in the 1920’s “muggles” was a slang term for marijuana cigarettes and either Rowling or Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who adapted all but one of the Harry Potter movies and worked on this one as one of the producers, didn’t want their wizarding world to be associated with pot.) Alas, one of Newt’s fantastic beasts — something called a Niggler, who consumes silver, gold and anything containing them (and therefore keeps getting Newt into trouble as it raids banks, jewelry stores and any other high-security repository of its favorite food) — escapes when Newt doesn’t quite close his magic suitcase all the way, and the others get let out when his path crosses with Kowalski (Dan Fogler, whose no-nonsense proletarian performance is a great antidote to all the cutesy-poo wizardry we see in the rest of the film), a cannery worker who applies for (and gets turned down for) a bank loan to open a bakery just as Newt is there chasing down the Niggler before it eats all the bank’s coin.

The two end up with each other’s suitcases (with an overly high dose of irony, Charles said, “I bet that’s never happened in a movie before — two people get their suitcases mixed up!”) and Kowalski ends up palling around with Newt as the two chase through New York trying to re-collect all the fantastic beasts before they wreak havoc on the civilian population and break the omertá with which the wizarding population has maintained utter secrecy about their existence because if ordinary people knew about them, they’d pass laws against them. The magic people have founded a secret society called MACUSA whose president, Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) — “Tina” for short — “arrests” Newt for having a wand without a license (wands are important enough in the Harry Potter universe that every actor who used one in the film had to go to “wand school”), and their fears are justified: among the quirkier dramatis personae are Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton, who looks enough like Katherine Waterston you really have to listen closely to the dialogue to realize which one is which and what side they’re on), who at the beginning of the film is leading an anti-wizard protest rally demanding a new round of Salem-style witch trials to get rid of the magic people forever. (In an indication that the script is by a British writer, Mary Lou’s initial speech contains a listing of modern technological marvels that prove the world doesn’t need wizards anymore, including “the wireless” — of course a speaker in New York in 1926 would have said “the radio”!) Newt and Kowalski are taken in by Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) — claims that Queenie was deliberately dressed like Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, appropriate because the male lead in that story is also named Kowalski — and together the four of them try to collect the fantastic beasts and also deal with the all-powerful evil wizard named Gellert Grindelwald who fled England and hid out in New York, ready to cause havoc.

There’s also a human baddie named Graves (Colin Farrell) who’s working in association with Mary Lou and her foster kids Credence (Ezra Miller, a good performance in a morally ambiguous Gollum-like role), Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove in her film debut), and Chastity (Jenn Murray), who turn out to be magical themselves and to have been abused by Mary Lou so systematically she makes the people who ran Lowood in Jane Eyre and the orphanages from hell in Diary of a Lost Girl and Little Orphan Annie seem like model caregivers by comparison. That’s about all there is to it plot-wise, and I could certainly have used a stronger story, but the whole conception is so charming it’s hard to hold anything against this movie — and there are marvelous bits and pieces in the film, directed by David Yates from Rowling’s original script, like the scene in which Eddie Redmayne as Newt pets one of the “fantastic beasts” — and the contact between Redmayne’s real hand and the CGI being is absolutely flawless and utterly convincing. The cast is good, with Fogler and Miller standing out; Eddie Redmayne is effective as a pretty milquetoast character (even though at the start he’s depicted as so endearingly incompetent that one wonders why he was entrusted with so important a mission as to bring the Fantastic Beasts to New York and get them across the Atlantic with no no-maj’s the wiser) but after seeing him in his tour de force role in The Danish Girl it’s a bit disappointing to see him back to playing a pretty routine character. At some times Fantastic Beasts gets too cute for its own good — just what can you do with a movie with a character named Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo)? — and the big revelation at the end that Graves is really the renegade wizard Grindelwald (even though the physical transformation is so great different actors play his two identities — Colin Farrell is Graves and Johnny Depp is Grindelwald) is nowhere nearly as much of a surprise as Rowling clearly intended, but nonetheless Fantastic Beasts is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.