On reimagining existing worlds, reconsidering your own mythology, and framing your franchise in a whole new light
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Warner Bros.
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Faith Wood-Blagrove and Ron Perlman
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 13 minutes / 2.35:1
November 18, 2016
(out of four)
The world does not need any more Harry Potter movies. This was my line of thinking every time I saw the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Or the poster. Or a news headline about it. It was my line of thinking in the hours before I saw the film. It is, if we're being honest, still lingering as my line of thought even right now as we speak. We've already had eight of them, haven't we? Surely that's plenty.
Not only that, but the new Harry Potter movie we were about to get - regardless of whether it had a different title, different characters and different setting, and despite the fact that, OK technically, "Harry Potter" wouldn't be appearing in this movie at all - would be directed by the same man who directed the last four entries in the series. By this point, my line of thought went, he'll be repeating himself. Dispassionately going through the motions, like muscle memory.
I couldn't be more delighted that my premature diagnosis was so incorrect. In fact, as far as franchises being unnecessarily brought back to life go, Fantastic Beasts is basically the anti-Hobbit. It's a reinvigoration rather than a reiteration. Whereas Peter Jackson's prequel movieduology trilogy doubled down on all of his established Middle Earth aesthetics - turning it into a tacky, plastic self-parody - David Yates takes the opportunity to start anew. It's not just the transplanting of the story to America, or the new Jazz Age setting, or the different set of characters - although all of those things help. Rather, it's that Yates seems to be seeing with fresh eyes, giving us a different interpretation of a world that follows the same rules, and offers the same possibilities, as the one he's so thoroughly explored already. It doesn't look or behave much like his Harry Potter entries - it comes closest in tone to Half-Blood Prince, which was also, incidentally, his best film of the four - as he tries new ideas for what he seems to interpret as a new thing, rather than a continuation of an old one.
It would not be inaccurate to say that Fantastic Beasts is a more mature film than its predecessors, but it's more than that. Perhaps it's better to say it's more aware of itself. The Potter series wasn't just a coming-of-age saga about kids; the movies themselves even felt like they were feeling their way through a world that was opening up before them. When the franchise began, it was this brand-new thing, and the filmmakers had to knock out a whole string of movies one after the other. There wasn't time or necessity for a lot of introspection; the franchise didn't get to have its out-of-body moment to take stock in its place in the culture. It simply had a story to continue, and it had to get on with it. But Fantastic Beasts feels mythological in a way the other movies didn't. It can go about its business in a way that requires much less explanation, and more evocation. Its internal logic and attitude and peculiarity are parts of the world it inherits rather than a new world still being constructed.
At one point, the film's main character - Newt Scamander, former Hogwarts exile and researcher of those magical creatures of the title - remarks that his school days were a long time ago, and that he's changed and grown beyond what he was back at Hogwarts, or something to that effect. That's as good a mission statement for this film as any. Part of its added maturity is by default, given that it focuses almost entirely on adult characters rather than schoolchildren and teenagers; but more than that, it feels even more confident in how to frame its characters and visually articulate the stakes. In a strange way, this behaves almost like a superhero film - not the type of superhero movie that usually gets made, but a quieter one in which the supernatural is shrouded in secret and rumor, and whose characters, both good and evil, only slowly come to discover their place in it. In certain ways it seems more like the kind of movie a younger M. Night Shyamalan would have made if given the budget, with the emphasis on drenching characters in an iconography of their own making, or their own discovery. (Unbreakable and Lady in the Water come to mind in particular.) There's a haunting moment in which a character is revealed - and framed - through the leftover holes in a row of shattered, crumbling walls; in composition alone, it invokes a sense of the mythic that serves as both triumph and warning.
The character in question is just one part of a nearly perfectly cast collection of talent. While Scamander - played by Eddie Redmayne with a sort of unnecessary self-satisfied amusement, rather than the anxious discomfort he seems to be going for - is the de-facto lead, the film works best when it operates as an ensemble. (Which is just as well, because Newt isn't much of a character, his primary use being the introduction of the creatures that wind up causing so much havoc.) As Tina, an investigator for the Magical Congress of whom Newt runs afoul when he first arrives in the States, Katherine Waterston is a potent combination of toughness and fragility. But it's her character's sister that is the really special bit of casting. A mind-reader named Queenie, she is the type of character who must make an immediate impression - a magnetic personality bursting with compassion and sexual playfulness in equal measure. Alison Sudol, a relative newcomer, delivers in a way I'd expect from an established movie star, just in the way she has to make an instantaneous connection with the camera.
It certainly makes an impression on Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a would-be baker and Muggle No-Maj who gets quite accidentally exposed to a world of magic he (not to mention the rest of the No-Maj world, by definition) had no idea existed. For reasons we don't need to go into, he is at least temporarily along for the journey with Newt, Tina and Queenie, as the four attempt to discover the nature of a malevolent presence that may or may not be human in nature. Filling out and deepening the story is the presence of the so-called New Salemers - those who've caught on to the presence of magic (or "witchcraft"), intent on warning everyone they can - and their leader Mary Lou, played with potent cruelty by the great Samantha Morton (!).
Colin Farrell - as Percival Graves, the Director of Magical Security - is equally potent, as is Ezra Miller as Credence, one of Mary Lou's adopted children tasked with spreading warnings of witchcraft to all who will listen. Credence is meek and withdrawn, which makes it really interesting for Miller, typically such an energetic (even abrasively so, at times) performer whose energies here are channeled inward.
Beasts is not without its problems. There's a distracting romantic angle to the Newt/Tina relationship that seems strangely obligatory - unnecessarily following a long tradition of movies where the leading man and leading woman just have to fall for each other, only for the sake of doing so. And for all of Yates' talents, he is only a passable action filmmaker, so the biggest setpieces don't always work as well as much of the rest of the movie. Not only that, but we can often sense when the film simply needed to fill the requirement of having a big effects sequence, and Yates is dutifully obliging. In this way and a few others, the film - written by J.K. Rowling herself - is structurally lumpy. Then again, I like some if its lumps - including a half-hour section that focuses almost entirely on the beasts (plot be damned), a sequence that goes back and forth between moments of serene moments and those of comic adventure. The story may screech to a standstill here, but it works. I like that it's divorced from the machinery of plot. It's the kind of diversion that's thankfully allowed to breathe, instead of being rushed past for narrative purposes.
For all the darkness and adult stakes in play here, there's a real lightness to Yates' touch. Philippe Rousselot's camera floats gracefully through this world - through the magic-inflected jazz clubs and 1920s social turmoil, enthusiastically underscoring the dazzling fashion and architecture of this city, in this age, with these secrets bubbling under the surface. I still say that we don't need five of these movies - which is what's been officially announced - but then again, look how wrong I was this time. Maybe I should learn my lesson and just look forward to more?