Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Dir. David Yates. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

I like the Niffler. The animation is a little mediocre by industry standard, I think – Fantastic Beasts is going to look outdated by the time the next movie in the series comes out – but he’s cute and mischievous all the same. He reminds me of my cat if my cat had a bizarre need to collect shiny things. I also like the Demiguise; it’s very sweet watching him carry things around and hold hands with Jacob (Fogler). I also like Pickett, the Bowtruckle who likes Newt (Redmayne) and doesn’t want to leave him. In other words, I like cute things which do cute things, which, in tandem with my longstanding Potter fandom, seems like it should guarantee that I’d enjoy this one.

The Niffler, the Demiguise, and the Bowtruckle are the highlights of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is maybe a small problem. Other elements of the movie just don’t hold up well. The performances are empty, the story is terrible and deadly long, the dialogue wouldn’t get past without raising alarms, and nothing about the film recalls the Harry Potter universe it’s ostensibly set in. Other than that, though, the play was just fine.

Let’s take the last one, which is the problem that I find most troubling. The Harry Potter movies have never quite known what to do with adult wizards who are powerful enough that they can cast spells and do things with magic which don’t require vocal cues, and Fantastic Beasts is the first Potter movie to make its major characters full-fledged adults. The majority of the magic outside Newt is just white lightning, which Tina (Waterston), Graves (Colin Farrell), and everyone else in the Magical Congress (MACUSA, pronounced like “Yakuza,” but way less interesting) finds call to use. Without magic that’s understandable to its audiences, the lifeblood of a Potter movie becomes anemic indeed; only Newt and his suitcase menagerie provide any sort of proof that this isn’t just an escaped Syfy property. There’s a reason that six Potter books/movies take place in school, and there’s a reason Hermione talks all the time during all of those. We need the education just as much as Harry and his friends do. McGonagall protests to Dumbledore in Sorcerer’s Stone that leaving Harry with Muggles is a foolish idea when any magical family would be glad to adopt him. In the moment, Dumbledore tells her that he’d be unable to handle his fame, though he’s hiding from his assistant headmaster the knowledge that leaving Harry with his only surviving family is his best protection against Voldemort. From a storytelling perspective, there’s no possible way that we could enjoy a story where Harry has grown up in a magical family; we need the outsider’s perspective, even though it turns out that Harry is as in as in can be. There’s no learning curve in Fantastic Beasts, which is a shame, because we need it to feel like something Potter is happening at all. I’m not arguing that the Potterverse, which has a million and one potential offshoots, should limit itself to stories of Harry-Ron-Hermione-Dumbledore-Voldemort. (Frankly, I’d be disappointed if they went back to that well again.) What I object to is the ramshackle way that Fantastic Beasts tries to fit into the Potterverse, giving us a rickety rope bridge to cross to this new world.

To be sure, Fantastic Beasts namedrops like a recent Harvard graduate with no discernible skills. The movie makes the back of Grindelwald’s head into its primary villain (mirrored in an identical shot of the back of Graves’ head, in case you meddlin’ kids needed any more help figuring out what his deal was throughout the movie). It makes Newt Scamander the protagonist of the story, and he is a figure that Potterheads have known of since the ’90s. But there’s not much else to go on. Setting the movie in ’20s New York is an attractive choice, but it also robs us of our familiarity with the magical world. Muggles in America are “No-Majs,” which is appropriately literal and rolls off the tongue like a dry burp. The movie’s plot rotates around an “Obscurus,” which is a type of animal, I guess, which possesses a child whose magic is repressed. (Ariana Dumbledore would like to have a few words, which I’m sure will happen later on in this trilogy.) The Obscurus will be awfully unfamiliar to readers of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though, because it’s not mentioned once in that book, which makes it another weird new thing to learn. Amusingly, it should ring some bells for anyone who’s seen a superhero movie in the past ten years, because the film’s Obscurus rips through New York with destructive, reckless abandon. There are some small similarities between the British and American magical governments. The leaders of both tend to be deeply clueless reactionaries, forcing our plucky heroes to revolt in small ways against their governments; the Potterverse is, in other words, dangerously close to its own Death Star problem, which is especially problematic because any magical government is rather less mighty and fearsome than a planet-killer. President Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) is a mashup of Cornelius Fudge’s myopia and Rufus Scrimgeour’s happy trigger-finger, who mumbles frequent warnings about “war” between the magical folk and the No-Majs with the sort of fervor that would give noted Beach Boys enthusiast John McCain excitations. In short, we know this is supposed to be the same world as Harry Potter’s, with some knowledge of the magic that happens. But the pre-existing magic is bland and the new additions simply don’t measure up to the standard.

Even the magic we do know seems to fade in and out of the story seemingly at random. (It’s not at random, really; it’s at moments where the filmmakers know that the only way they can get a desired result is by not dropping the magic.) Midway through the movie, Newt uses a Summoning Charm to nab his Niffler, who’s on the loose again. Why on earth did he not do that in an earlier scene, when he had a clear shot at the little dude? Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a Legilimens; those of us who skipped Order of the Phoenix – first of all, you made the right choice – may not remember Snape’s comments on Legilimency. Harry’s impression of Legilimency as mind-reading is quickly snuffed by Snape:

You have no subtlety, Potter. You do not understand fine distinctions. Only Muggles talk of ‘mind-reading’. The mind is not a book, to be opened at will and examined at leisure. 

Not so in Fantastic Beasts, where Queenie not only reads minds with aplomb, but does so almost without meaning to. There’s no evidence in the books that a Legilimens can’t turn off that power any more than an Occlumens keeps it on all the time; not only does Snape say the word “Legilimens” in Harry’s Occlumency lessons, it seems highly unlikely that a person can function while constantly living in other people’s heads.

Aside from these problems of the universe this movie belongs to because it’ll make a lot of rich people a lot more money – let’s do this fast – we have the tired performances we’ve seen before. David Yates could have directed his actors for the entire shoot with instructions scribed on a dozen Post-It notes. “Be daffy and endearing, Eddie!” “Katherine, try to be more competently dull!” “Colin, have you tried ‘generic villain scowl?'” “Ezra, if you could just do the angry kiddo thing you had from We Need to Talk About Kevin, but without any of the sociopathic menace, that’d be great.” We have the dialogue, which tells us frequently how dire the situation is without the movie ever showing us proof of anything really dire happening. As bad as the problems are with the boring magic (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write), part of the reason this movie doesn’t work as a Potter movie is because the dialogue is not merely unmemorable but stale. The Harry Potter books and movies alike are far from perfect, but I think most of us can agree the dialogue works. The characters are interesting enough to say interesting things here and there, to be funny and dry as well as dramatic when called for. No one in this movie is interesting enough to say anything half as amusing or outstanding as, “Ron, you are the most insensitive wart I have ever had the misfortune to meet.” Finally, Roger Ebert, as he had a knack for doing, said what we’ve all been thinking, but better: “No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough.” Fantastic Beasts is longer than two hours, repeats the same scenes over and over again (I don’t know how many animals Newt returns to his suitcase, but it must be at least twenty-five), and could have been done in an hour if the filmmakers had merciful hearts.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a better stage production than Potter property. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a better add-on than a Potter property. The Potterverse is in a weird place right now, sort of like where Star Wars was as The Phantom Menace was premiering. Fans are willing to grasp for every drop of new story they can find, even resorting to taking the tweets of J.K. Rowling as canonical, which just befuddles me: the word of God took more effort to become canon than the word of Jo. Big adventures like those two are lemonade in a desert for fans, who have been sucking at tweets and interviews for a decade. I doubt if most people share my revulsion of this movie – BAFTA nominated it for “Outstanding British Film” alongside the likes of I, Daniel Blake and American Honey, which I hope was a little embarrassing for everyone – but I dislike this movie so strongly that I’m afraid I’ve become a curmudgeonly fan. I don’t mean to be! I don’t want to be that guy in the back of the theater muttering about how terrible Ewoks are! But I think it’s clear that Potter movies, like Star Wars and Star Trek movies before them, have become little more than exercising the power of a brand name. If Fantastic Beasts isn’t going remind us of the magic of the other Potter movies, then I’m not sure it has a reason to exist other than enriching people at Warner Brothers, for it certainly doesn’t have the strength to stand on its own. If an animal were as bad off as this movie is, well, you know what the vet would suggest you do to it.

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