Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Escape Into the Potterverse

If you love Harry Potter, you've probably already seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. After all, there's nothing more exciting than the chance to re-enter the beloved Potterverse and escape reality for a few hours. However, if you haven't seen it yet, here are some thoughts to help you make your decision.

First off, this movie is an inventive wonder. Written by J.K. Rowling, you cannot quibble about the sheer imagination and wizardry that has gone into fashioning this world. A prequel to the events of the Harry Potter novels, it is set in 1920's New York and gives us the hitherto unknown background of how American witches and wizards dealt with magic. There's new vocabulary to learn (for example, Muggles are known as No-Maj's), new characters to meet, and brand new adventures to be had. Our hero is the British wizard, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the man we only know from the novels as the author of Harry's textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In this movie, however, Newt is at the start of his career as a magizoologist, a fervent lover of magical creatures who wishes to study them, learn from them, and save them from extinction. When he lands in New York, he serves as the audience surrogate, being as unfamiliar with American magical customs as we are, and he is arrested by Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) for causing a ruckus with his Niffler and some untoward wand waving.

Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) become his magical guides to New York, along with a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who becomes an unwitting participant to his schemes. There are multiple plots at play here - Newt has inadvertently let loose a bunch of magical creatures in the city and must track them down. But at the same time, there is a dark force that is terrorizing the town, and getting to the heart of that mystery becomes the ultimate goal of our central cast of characters. This means that the tone of this film is wildly uneven - at times it brims with sheer wonder and visual splendor, then it becomes a funny romp as the No-Maj deals with the crazy magic folk, and then it suddenly becomes a supremely disturbing story involving abused children and dark wizards. Yeah, bet you didn't see that coming.

That varied tone has always been a hallmark of the Potter novels - they started out as wondrous, enchanting tales, but eventually developed into more mature, dark stories that delved into the age-old battle between good and evil. While literature was a great medium to present that gradual tonal shift, it proves to be a bit jarring in a two-hour film. This franchise is eventually going to consist of five movies, so it looks like Rowling will try to spread out the story and ease us into things as carefully as possible. But given that this movie started in 1926 and the subsequent films will encompass the events of World War II, ending in 1945, presumably with the epic showdown between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald (aka "wizard Hitler"), this franchise is just going to keep getting darker.

I will certainly watch this series through to the end, because that is what any dedicated Potter fan would do. My one worry is that it might end up a bloated behemoth like the Hobbit movies, but my one consolation is that these films are based on completely original material, straight from the mind of the brilliant Rowling. Therefore, as dark as things might get, they will certainly never be dull. The cast is definitely excellent (Eddie Redmayne is a perfect Hufflepuff hero, bumbling but brave and true) so I look forward to accompanying them on this journey and finding more fantastic beasts.

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