You should see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them if A) you’re a child or B) you’re still a child. Did you answer B? Course you did. You’re an emotional wreck, and 2016 is still yet to be easy. But if, like me, you love Harry potter and expanded universes, then FBAWTFT will help.
1: You can use that redundant arts degree to feel smart.
This film is more allegorical than not, highlighting intolerance and isolationism from the off: Newt Scamander (Redmayne), steps off the boat in New York (why didn’t he just apparate?), and hits US muggle (‘no-maj’), customs with his case of beasts. Then he’s accosted by foolhardy ex-auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who immediately asks to see his wand permit, in a slightly I-don’t-really-believe-in-this-bullshit kind of way. The level of bureaucracy is as suffocating for us as it is for them, despite her pallid subservience and his incredible Britishness. Which is good: Redmayne’s twitchy, alt-handsome, slightly tubercular brand, perfectly suits his character. And, refreshingly, he’s not your average American take on the missionary Englishman, but then we’re not magical virgins, either.
2: It looks great.
It being set in the twenties offers an entree of nostalgia appropriate to the appetite of today’s audience. Magic is quaint. It’s more suited to the past, as are the British, apparently. Yates knows this. He’s had four instalments in the franchise to refine magic’s aesthetic, to universalise the colours spells make and the shape of disapparation. It’s bright, glamorous and romantic, with the right mix of humour and foreboding: war is on the horizon, historically and in fiction, and it’s appropriate, and ironic, that this film depicts a level of paranoia equal to world that made it. “Witches live among us” say the Second-Salemers, an anti-magic hate group lead by Samantha Morton’s ultra-right, religious matriarch Mary Lou Barebone, who demonstrates self-righteous messages of hate and intolerance in public. Remind you of anyone? Unfortunately, people don’t simply respond with harmless, if pathetic, milkshake drive bys – they’re genuinely scared of wizards and witches, not singularly because a strange creature that looks like the Spirit of Jazz has been tearing up New York’s cobbles.
3. It’s [depressingly] relevant.
The level of muggle-fear is high. But there is also resent. This is 1926. The American economy dominates the globe and grows continually. And it’s easy to read the technological advances made by muggles as they struggle for a type of global power that we, as honorary witches and wizards privy to the more crucial conflicts of the wizarding world, know to be futile, as an attempt to make up for the fact that they have no magical abilities. But it’s not all ignorance and resentment: no-maj Jacob Kowalski, played endearingly by Dan Fogler, just wants a loan so he can quit his shit job and open his own bakery. Classic. But literally bumping into Newt, being arrested by Tina and falling in love with her delightfully quizzical/almost annoying sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Jacob wants to know all about magic instead. His character develops at the rate that today’s tolerance should: immediately, excellently highlighting the destructive power of repression, presented in Credence Barebone – Mary Lou’s misunderstood son, played in suitably morose form by Ezra Miller, who seems poised to reprise his role in We Need to Talk about Kevin throughout.
4. It’s for kids, but mostly the kid inside you.
The jeopardy is real. And instead of talking rationally, everyone’s backing into corners. There’s even a rich newspaper guy (John Voight), though, with too regrettably little screen time, he doesn’t get the chance to stir shit up because the storm is already breaking. We’re told that in the intro, when magical newspapers fly across the screen over-explaining things. Fine, that’s designed to welcome kids who may have somehow not seen/read any HP material yet, and to ease us veterans back into Rowling’s world. But it’s a world we never left; that people who weren’t even in Year 7 when the first HP book came out never left. This may, to some serious fans, suggest that by expanding her universe, Rowling is contracting its magic. Yes, that scene where the strudel bakes itself was yawn-inducing. So was the broad sweeping look inside Scamander’s suitcase at all his creatures (fantastic though they were). The writing is good, but we’ve all seen magic by now. And the surprise cameo at the end was more eye-rolling and unnecessary than when the magical president Fudges everything by imprisoning Tina and Newt. That said, the no-maj police’s use of conventional weaponry against spells is new. It also singles out the futility of hiding behind walls and trying to fight ideas with guns: a great, accessible premise for a film aimed at kids, and the kids of kids who are adults.
But this doesn’t mean witches and wizards are altruistic. The film focuses heavily on the internal struggle of the magical authorities as they try to prevent war, despite the relentless drive of the sinister, high-ranking auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who’s clearly up to no good. The echoes from the takeover of the Ministry of Magic in HP are prominent; the repetitive nature of history alarmingly relevant. But this isn’t an origin story. It’s a funny, alluring demonstration of everyone’s ability to be really fucking childish, again, for good or bad – except this time with higher production values, stronger lead actors and a better script.
Review by Harry Gallon
You can read more movie reviews here…