Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Question Club: What even is Fantastic Beasts?

The past weekend saw the release of the much-anticipated fantasy film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest movie to take place in J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. It’s the first Rowling film to not feature Potter and his friends at all: it begins in 1926 New York City, thousands of miles and many decades away from the 1990s Britain setting of the Potter novels. It’s also the first Rowling film that isn’t based on a novel. Rowling’s book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a 42-page encyclopedia of fictional creatures in the Potterverse, written to raise money for charity. The film, scripted by Rowling, and intended as the first in a five-movie series, introduces Fantastic Beasts author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an awkward researcher and magical beast enthusiast visiting New York, where he runs into non-magical local Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), disgraced Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and many, many other members of the New York magical community. It’s a dense, frantic film, full of chases and fights and a weird mating dance, as Newt loses control of his briefcase full of magical creatures, and has to round them back up. The film made a decent start at the box office this weekend with a $75 million domestic take that puts it well below any previous Potter film, but well above any other movie that came out Friday. But how is Fantastic Beasts as a film?

So who is this movie for, exactly?

Kwame: I’m really struggling to figure out who this movie is aimed at. It seems like it wants to use its promise of wild CGI magical creatures to pull in a new generation of young fans who might have missed the entire Harry Potter craze of the 2000s, while also catering to Harry Potter die-hards who really want to learn more about Rowling’s wizarding world. The problem is, the kid stuff, where we spend a lot of time exploring a magical zoo in a briefcase, or chasing after creatures who really dig shiny things, doesn’t knit well with the darker themes working in the background. What did you two think?
Megan: I think you’ve nailed the biggest problem about this movie. Its audience seems to be split into the two camps you’ve described, with very little room in between. So where does that leave someone like me? I fall into no man's land.
I grew up alongside Harry Potter. He and I were the same age when I read the first book, and so it continued for the rest of the series. By the time the first film came out, I was a few years older. The world it presented felt cheesy to me in a way the novels never did. Although the films got better, they still failed to find harmony between humor and horror. There are so many horrific things happening in the Harry Potter universe at all times. But the films often lacked the nuance that J.K. Rowling had space to weave into her stories over hundreds of pages.

just coming to the series now? The main characters in Beasts aren’t kids learning magic in school, they’re adults. They have jobs and work problems, they deal with bank loans, and they live in small, cramped New York City apartments. And then the movie does go to some really dark places with the Grindelwald plot, which essentially boils down to a magical terrorist trying to manipulate an abused child for use as a destructive weapon against innocent people, which seems like a story that’s meant to attract a more mature audience.
But then all those ideas and storylines are essentially relegated to B-plots and footnotes, and we spend the bulk of the movie watching Newt and his friends run around New York City chasing down the cute, brightly colored CGI creatures that have escaped from his magical menagerie in a bunch of slapstick setpieces. Instead of moving the franchise forward, Fantastic Beasts takes a step back, burying the bones of a more mature Potter movie beneath a mountain of CGI critters. 

How does it compare to the original Harry Potter saga?

Megan: Fantastic Beasts is a story about adults that manages to feel more childish than the original series. Newt has good intentions — to protect and preserve his magical creatures, and return some of them to where they belong — but he goes about it in a selfish, stupid, destructive way. His carelessness practically helps ignite a war between non-magical “No-Maj” humans and wizards. His actions seem to be explained away as part of his “eccentric” nature, but that’s a real cop-out.
Harry Potter, meanwhile, has always tackled mature topics through a youthful lens. The very first chapter of the series is about the aftermath of Voldemort murdering Harry's parents. The books touch on topics like torture, cults, slavery, hate groups, and death. It gets away with being a kids’ series because of its heroes, but even characters like Harry, Hermione, and Ron had better sense than any of the Fantastic Beasts cast.
Chaim: To me, compared to Beasts’ thin story and see-sawing tone, the original Potter series just feels richer in a way that the new film doesn’t. Maybe that’s because I’ve spent dozens of hours over the years with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, compared to the relatively short time we’ve spent getting to know Newt, Tina, and Jacob.
But I think it goes beyond just familiarity. Looking at a wider lens, Harry’s story is that of a lonely boy discovering a new world, finding friends and family, and fighting against a singular evil that tore his world apart. We get to share Harry’s wonder as he joins the wizarding world, and we understand why the battle against Voldemort is so important to him. He grows and struggles and changes over the course of the series. Meanwhile, Fantastic Beasts has the eccentric Newt Scamander at its center. His entire story involves chasing down a mole that likes jewelry, a horny glowing rhinoceros, and an invisible monkey. Looking back, I can’t really describe Newt as having a character arc at all — we’re introduced to him fully formed, and just kind of get to see him run around and do his magic creature thing.
The larger themes of the Harry Potter series come down to the powerful concepts that the strength of love and friendship can triumph over evil. How can Fantastic Beasts ever come close with a message of “environmentalism and conservation of endangered animals is important”?
Kwame: I’m not gonna lie here. I kind of enjoyed the movie, despite all its problems. There are a few reasons for that. For one, I think the supporting characters are a great deal more interesting than Newt Scamander himself. If we’re making a direct comparison to Harry Potter, Newt pales in comparison to Harry. He reads like a shallow Doctor Who knockoff full of unnecessary quirks, while Harry is a kid struggling under the weight of his fame and the horrors that come with it. But Tina, Queenie, the MACUSA wizards, Credence, and even Jacob are compelling. As cheesy and obvious as it was, I even fell for the romance between Queenie and Jacob. They’re so precious!
More than anything else, though, I think this film differs from the original Harry Potter novels and films in that it’s leaning hard on a mythology that’s already been established. The movie presumes you have at least a passing knowledge of the wizarding world. (And why not? Harry Potter is nigh ubiquitous these days.) So what I enjoyed above all else was the world-building.

We’ll get to whether this is a good or bad thing in a minute, but what gets me about this movie is that it’s almost reverse-engineering its mythology. The original Harry Potter films added new features and wrinkles to the wizarding world with every new book. We learned about things like House Elf oppression, the wizarding government, and Voldemort’s backstory over the course of seven books. Fantastic Beasts is trying to tell its own story in its own context while also spot-welding itself to a mythology we already know. Consider how much weight was given to Voldemort even before he appeared in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Save for a few asides about how evil he is, Grindelwald doesn’t get anywhere near that kind of treatment, so our investment in him as a character comes right out of what we know from the original books.
In the end, the movie feels like the Hobbit films, or Prometheus, in that it’s trying to build something epic atop an established property, using scant materials. You could theoretically tell any kind of story in this era with these characters, so long as they fit into the little we already know about the time.

Is it a problem that this feels like a thin concept resting atop an increasingly expansive fictional universe?

Megan: Look, I get it. Fantastic Beasts is an easy way to tie this story to the Harry Potter franchise. It’s a nod to J.K. Rowling’s book, which is her expanding on a textbook Harry and his friends read in school. But it feels opportunistic, rather than worthwhile. I can’t imagine this plot carrying well into any of the sequels, nor should it. If you remove Newt chasing down his animals, you still have the makings of an interesting film: tension in America between the wizarding community and No-Majs, set against the backdrop of the dark wizard Grindelwald running amok.
You could build an entire new franchise off that premise with brand-new characters, and it would probably be far more satisfying. Bringing in already-established characters means there’s no tension, no weight to their actions.
Kwame: I don’t know that I agree. Having another movie with magical creatures running around would be a mistake in my mind. But the seeds of future story beats, like Newt’s brother being a war hero, are all over the place in this movie. The trouble is, they’re in the background while we’re asked to watch an extended mating-dance ritual.
For me, this movie feels like a later-stage Marvel movie. There’s all this story that the filmmakers expect viewers to invest in, even though it will only resolve in movies two, three, four, or five. There’s content that exists entirely outside of the film, explaining American Magical History. Fantastic Beasts isn’t a movie so much as a platform for a new franchise launch.
I’ll say this, though. If the filmmakers want us to keep caring about these movies, Newt can’t be the lead. I’d be much more into a movie about Tina tracking down Dark Wizards and Grindelwald’s acolytes in America than another trip down into Newt’s luggage zoo.
Chaim: I’m on Kwame’s side: Fantastic Beasts very much feels like a movie in search of a franchise. But I’m still trying to figure out a possible purpose for Newt Scamander in four additional movies, other than to introduce more beasts further down the line. There’s tons of compelling stuff for Rowling to build off of here, but none of it is in Newt’s story.

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