MAD: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them

(2016 Warner Bros/Watched on Blu Ray)

Yesterday I jumped back onto Twitter for the first time in weeks. The first post that hit me was a thread about how the Harry Potter books were ridiculously overrated and mediocre fantasy for people who have forgotten how to rebel. To that person dismissing the deep attachment for MILLIONS of people with this body of work, the powerful, bittersweet emotional ties with the indelible characters, the forthright ethical remit of overcoming fear to work with and help others, the sparking of imaginations in young minds the world over, and the gossamer connections between people of all ages across this vast web of fiction that informs upon and influences our lives and actions…

What should we be loving instead?

I switched off Twitter and turned back to the room, where Lyra had brought a pair of her friends around and they sat poised with Sharon as she pressed play on Fantastic Beasts. Two sisters who had missed this at the cinema. They watched in rapture, drinking in this new vision of a familiar world and we all discussed the continuity quietly as events played out. When they left their faces were alight: “It was brilliant”.

Star Wars was also decried on this thread as a waste of everybody’s time.

I shan’t return to Twitter soon or often.

But even many die hard Potter fans did not dig Fantastic Beasts. As a successor to Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2, an epic odyssey across Death-Eater-occupied England with long-established and beloved heroes, in which the dozens of loose ends laid down by six previous films were neatly tied up in a manner that is on a par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Fantastic Beasts falls many miles short of the mark. But I’m wondering exactly how many people went into this opening act of a new series of stories set in the Magical World expecting something along those lines.

Judged against the first two Christopher Columbus Potter movies it fares pretty damn well, delivering strong doses of Rowling’s signature warmth, anxiety, social commentary and whimsy. This does not present us with a vast series of secret doors to be opened slowly, as with Harry’s journey, but it does lay down the beginnings of a widening universe that is sure to be added to and expanded many times in our lives in avenues well beyond what’s inside Newt Scamander’s T.A.R.D.I.S. case.

It’s natural to rail against the idea of things no longer ending, especially if you’re older. Once the Pirates of the Caribbean closed out its natural trilogy Disney began sniffing around for new movie possibilities, all kinds of old warriors are being brought out of retirement for one last battle, nearly always to the chimes of box office cash registers the world over. Nostalgia is one of the most powerful marketing tools. But since Marvel made good on their ongoing movie universe and so many attempted to follow suit, with very mixed results, the idea of things just being over and allowed to lie pretty much went out the window. We must accept, we MUST, that no matter how much we complain, studios are in the business of making money, and when they own a property that could be generating income, the artistic merit of allowing a story to stand completed will never outweigh their drive onward to more profit. Look at the Bourne Trilogy, its rubbishy spin-off attempt and its even less memorable return to the original lead and his artificially eventful life.

But this isn’t new, and to say it is is naive. Butch and Sundance: The Early Years says “Hi”, as does Alien Resurrection. Those were two films that were arranged in meeting rooms where money men went toe to toe with the Reaper himself and somehow won (in the worst way). Even Arthur Conan Doyle was pressured into resurrecting his great detective, because a percentage of fans have always been demanding bastards who never accept The End as the end. What we can do, as consumers of fiction, as connoisseurs of stories, as fans of worlds is outline where the failures and successes lie.

When Fantastic Beasts hit cinemas in New York on November 10th it was literally HOURS after the world had been told that Donald Trump was most definitely going to be the next American president. The kind of people that love Harry Potter were left reeling. This pompous, dangerous combination of Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, Voldemort himself and a Troll was now being handed the Elder Wand and asked who he’d like to point it at.

We were down and beaten, at our lowest possible point, after the worst of years. In Britain we were still reeling from the Brexit result that determined we should no longer work together, but that Britain, at its most arrogant and imperious, was somehow better and more deserving than the surrounding countries.

I don’t know about you, but I went to see this film in a daze, at its first midnight screening, and what I saw brought a broad smile to my face and a wistful sigh. I was looking to escape, and that’s exactly what I got. When I saw it, and each subsequent time I see it, the same word keeps coming back: “lovely”. It’s not deep in terms of what is said, it’s not fantastic filmmaking, it most definitely is too beholden in notable areas to the idea of sequels and a broader picture, some of the illogical moments practically break the film with the questions they summon up, and the internet obligingly focused on all of them at the expense of everything I’m going to say after the word “But”…

BUT

It’s a culture clash of English eccentricity and American brass. It puts in place four characters that I straight-up love, and it gets them to interact in extremely appealing ways. Its score by James Newton Howard is wonderful and memorable, the humour made me laugh out loud, something a lot of early Potter stories could not achieve, the moments of heartache feel sharp and returning Potter helmsman David Yates gets his leads to deliver each line with total assurance of who they are and what motivates them. It’s these guys, and the gorgeous art deco surroundings that allow me to forgive all the trappings of blockbusters, with exploding streets and hand-wavy cleanup endings (literally, this time).

Unlike everybody crying foul on the statement of multiple films to follow up on this I am pleased. A studio remaining tight-lipped on potential sequels is a bad sign of lack of confidence. A studio constantly changing the films on the slate because they keep trying to adjust to everybody’s reactions to each film, as well as the films of their competitors is EVEN WORSE… Warner Bros. So in this regard Rowling saying “Five” with assurance is a good sign, even if her original estimation was three.

Because we know that they’re going to keep making Magical World films, come what may, and I’d rather it be a clearly considered overarching story (hopefully more solidly in place for film two) than constant rebooting and changing their minds about what might garner mass appeal.

Nothing can ever replace the eight Harry Potter films, and they have indeed ended (in an extremely satisfying fashion), but as existentially frightening as we might find it, the world goes on. This being so clearly tied to Jo is about the best sign of all. We know that woman can spin a tale.

Author: Alex Shaw

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  1. I think one of my favorite examples of “studios have always dragged out old properties” is the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Paramount heard that Universal got the rights to Dracula, so they dragged out a property that they had already made in 1920 because it was horror and they owned the rights. They were so dedicated to the remake that they wanted John Barrymore, who starred in their own 1920 version, to play the title role again. They couldn’t get him, so they instead got Fredric March who turned in an Oscar winning performance (one of five best actor Oscars given for a horror movie to date). I suppose it could have been a sequel…

    Otherwise, I agree with you wholeheartedly, at least about the ur-message. Haven’t seen the film yet (it’s on my list), but the particularly virulent branch of humanity that sees those finding parallels and strength in those books as being childish are missing so much more than the point. It’s vital that our art reflect our values, and having more media that dips into a world where kindness, friendship, community, humanity, and love consistently overcome hatred and bigotry is not a bad thing. Unless hatred and bigotry are your thing, that is, which I suspect in many cases it is with these particular people.

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