Saturday, December 17, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was written by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates.

Rowling is of course the author of the Harry Potter series of books. Fantastic Beasts is her first foray into screenwriting. Yates previously helmed a number of shorts and TV movies, before becoming the defacto director of the Harry Potter film franchise. He directed Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2. He also directed the recent The Legend Of Tarzan.

Overall I liked the film overall, with one huge reservation that I'll get to below. The performances were all great, the effects looked amazing, I enjoyed the 1920s setting and it was nice to see a different part of the Wizarding World.

Unfortunately I thought the cast of all-new characters were bland and uninteresting, and I honestly didn't care much what happened to any of them (except one). They just didn't engage me the way the Harry Potter characters did.

Fantastic Beasts is J.K. Rowling's first ever screenplay, and all things considered it's not bad for a first attempt. The script contains all her usual hallmarks, particularly the
"Let's Start Up The Actual Plot In The Third Act" trope, which plagues all the Potter books and films.

The film has kind of a convoluted origin, as it's based on a book within a book, so to speak. In Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone (aka Philosopher's Stone, for you Brits), Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was a textbook that all first year Hogwarts' students were required to read. Hermione Granger even mentions it a few times in Sorcerer's Stone.

Then in 2001, J.K. Rowling actually wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts Yadda Yadda, under the pen name of Newt Scamander. The book was an imaginary field guide to the various magical creatures inhabiting the Potterverse. 80% of the proceeds from the book went to the Comic Relief charity.

In 2013, Rowling noticed that the cash level in Money Bin #219 had dipped slightly below fifty feet, so she announced she was producing a film based on the book.

There's also a second Fantastic Beasts book, which contains the screenplay of the film. That shouldn't be the least bit confusing for clueless grandmas trying to buy the book for their grandkids.

The minute the film was announced, I wondered how the public would react to a film set in the Wizarding World without Harry Potter. Would audiences embrace it or soundly reject it? So far it seems American audiences are just OK with it, as it's "only" grossed around $200 million here. The foreign market apparently loves it, as so far it's grossed $500 million internationally. In all it's grossed around $700 million and counting, so it looks like it's a hit.

 Rowling's already announced a whopping 5, count 'em FIVE sequels to the film. That's a hell of a lot of beasts to find!


The Plot:
In 1926, the magical community is being terrorized by dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who absolutely isn't supposed to remind us of Voldemort. His name is plastered across every newspaper in the Wizarding World.

In New York City, Percival Graves (played by Colin Farrell) inspects a building that's been damaged by an unknown force. Graves is an auror, and the Director of Magical Security for MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America). Also, his name shouldn't be considered suspicious (wink wink). As he sifts through the rubble, an unseen "thing" flees underground and destroys the street.

Cut to British wizard Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) as he arrives in New York City. Newt carries a magical briefcase filled with "harmless" fantastic creatures.

Newt walks through the city and is stopped by Mary Lou Barebone, an anti-magic holy roller. With her adopted children Credence (played by Ezra Miller), Modesty and Chastity, she spreads her hate-filled message that all witches and wizards should be eliminated. Since the general public is unaware of the Wizarding World, she's considered a crackpot. As Newt tries to get away from her, a niffler (a magical creature that sort of looks like an echidna) escapes the suitcase, steals a coin on the ground and runs away.

The niffler runs into a large bank, and Newt follows, trying to catch it. He runs into Jacob Kowalski, a "no-maj" (aka muggle), who's dejected after failing to get a loan to start his own bakery. Jacob carries a suitcase that looks identical to Newt's, which of course guarantees there'll be wacky hi jinx later. Newt drops an occamy egg, which Jacob picks up. When it starts to hatch, Newt uses magic to pull Jacob toward him. 

This attracts the attention of Tina Goldstein, a witch and former MACUSA auror. The niffler runs into the vault, and Newt and Jacob follow it. They're caught by a bank employee, who thinks they're robbing the vault. Newt captures the niffler, gets it to drop everything it stole, and apparates himself and Jacob out of the vault.

Newt is about to obliviate Jacob's memories, to protect Wizard-kind. Suddenly Jacob grabs his suitcase, hits Newt in the face with it and runs off. Tina than catches Newt, accusing him of breaking the law by using magic in front of a no-maj. She takes him to MACUSA and barges into President Seraphina Picquery's office, which I guess anyone can do without an appointment in this world. 

The President isn't happy to see Tina, since she's an ex-auror who was fired for a previous incident. Graves appears and intervenes, demanding to see what's in Newt's case. When he opens it, they all see it's full of baked goods, as Jacob must have inadvertently switched his case with Newt's. What'd I tell you? Hijinx! Graves gruffly dismisses Tina's accusations.

A rattled Jacob goes back to his apartment. He opens his suitcase, which of course is really Newt's, and several magical creatures leap out, knocking a hole in the side of the building to escape. Hey, we finally get to see some fantastic beasts!

Meanwhile over in the boring subplot, Mary Lou Barebones teaches her orphans about the evils of witches and beats Credence for… some reason. She takes her kids to see plutocrat Henry Shaw (played by Jon Voight) and his son, Senator Henry Shaw Jr., but they're creeped out by her and show her the door. Graves secretly approaches Credence, promising to take him away from his horrible adoptive mother if he helps him find a powerful magical child who he believes is running around the city.

Newt and Tina find Jacob's building, and repair the damage with magic. Newt gets his suitcase back, and sees that Jacob was injured by a murtlap, which will need treatment. Tina takes the two men to her apartment, where they meet her sister Queenie, a witch who can read minds. Jacob's immediately smitten with Queenie. Tina shows the men to a spare bedroom (apparently ex-aurors and their sisters can afford pretty spacious apartments).

In their room, Newt opens his suitcase and climbs down inside it, beckoning for Jacob to follow. The suitcase is much like a TARDIS, and contains nearly infinite space inside it. Jacob sees that Newt's created a makeshift zoo inside the case. 
Each of his magical creatures has its own enclosure, with a reasonable facsimile of its original habitat. 

Newt treats Jacob's injury and introduces him the various animals, including a thunderbird he calls Frank. Newt says he came to America so he could release Frank into the skies of Arizona. Jacob spots a bubble containing an inky black cloud. Newt says it's an obscurus, and warns him to stay away from it. They exit the suitcase.

Newt and Jacob then search downtown New York for the escaped creatures. A huge, whimsical and expensive set piece ensues as the two capture the various magical animals. Tina sees them and orders them to come with her. Meanwhile, Senator Shaw is holding a banquet to raise funds for his reelection. The building's attacked by an unseen force, which kills Shaw.

Tina takes Newt and Jacob to MACUSA again, interrupting President Picquery in the middle of yet another meeting. Doesn't Picquery have a lock on her door? Graves reports that Shaw was murdered by an obscurus, and is shocked to find that Newt has one in his suitcase. He's also angry that Newt and Tina have revealed the existence of the Wizarding World to a no-maj. Graves confiscates Newt's briefcase and has the three of them arrested.

In their cell, Newt explains that an obscurus is a dark and dangerous force that's created when a magical child is forced to suppress their powers. He says that such kids rarely live past age ten (as a witch, shouldn't Tina already know all this?). Graves arrives and interrogates Newt, accusing him of being a follower of Grindelwald. He sentences Newt and Tina to death. Really? Just like that? No trial or anything?

Newt and Tina are taken into an execution chamber, where they're to be drowned (they're witches, remember?). As Tina's being lowered into the water, Newt releases one of his magical creatures, which rescues her. Queenie shows up (she read Tina's mind and figured out what was happening) and steals Newt's suitcase from Graves' office. Newt, Tina and Jacob hide in the suitcase while Queenie sashays out of the building with it.

Since this is a J.K. Rowling script, the real plot of the movie finally decides to kick in, two thirds of the way into the run time. Credence finds a wand in his sister Modesty's room. Mary Lou sees it, thinks it's his and starts beating him, until Modesty admits it belongs to her. The obscurus attacks, killing Mary Lou and destroying the house. Graves appears again, and is convinced Modesty is the obscurus. Once again he promises to take care of Credence if he helps him find Modesty (um… isn't Credence's life a hundred times better now that his horrible adoptive mother is dead?).

Credence thinks he knows where Modesty is, and finds her hiding in her old house. Graves brushes off Creedence now that he's no longer of any use to him. This angers the unstable Credence, who turns out to be the obscurus instead of Modesty. The combination of his abused personality and his age makes him the most powerful obscurus ever. He flies off into the city, leaving a trail of destruction behind, as an army of MACUSA aurors chases him.

Newt tries to catch Credence before the aurors kill him. He corners Credence in the subway, and manages to calm him down long enough for him to revert his normal form. Suddenly Graves and the other aurors arrive, and Credence transforms into the obscurus again. They blast him with their wands, destroying him (although Newt notices a tiny wisp of the energy floating away, ensuring Credence will return for the inevitable sequel).

Graves then goes completely off the rails, admitting he unleashed the obscurus to expose the Wizarding World to the no-maj community. He claims MACUSA cares more about no-majes than their own people. President Picquery orders the aurors to capture him. He easily deflects the aurors' blasts, but is subdued by one of Newt's beasts. Newt uses a spell on Graves, revealing he was really Grindelwald (played by Johnny Depp) the whole time. GASP! What a stunning turn of events that was telegraphed from the first frame!

President Picquery fears Graves/Grindelwald's plan was successful, as hundreds of New Yorkers witnessed the magical battle, far more than could ever be obliviated. Newt takes a memory-wiping potion from his suitcase and gives it to Frank the thunderbird, who flies into the air and releases it into a raincloud (before flying off to Arizona). The rain falls, causing all no-majes in the city to forget what they saw.

Picquery thanks Newt for his help, but says Jacob will have to be obliviated as well— no exceptions. Instead of telling the ungrateful cow to piss off, he calmly accepts his fate. Jacob says goodbye to Newt, Tina and especially Queenie, and walks out into the memory-erasing rain.

Several days later, Jacob returns to his dull, boring factory job. Suddenly Newt appears and bumps into him, dropping a briefcase before disappearing. Jacob opens the case and finds it's full of occamy eggs, which are made of pure silver. Now he can open his bakery! Newt says goodbye to Tina and goes back to London. He says he plans to write a book called 
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (we have a title!) and will dedicate it to her.

As the film ends, we see Jacob running his very successful bakery. Oddly enough, his pastries all look like various creatures from the Wizarding World. Queenie visits the shop and says hello. Jacob gives her a long look, as if he recognizes her from somewhere...


• Even though this happened at the end of the film, I want to get it off my chest first thing— I absolutely hate, hate, HATED the idea of Jacob getting obliviated at the end of the movie. In fact I hated it so much it soured me on the whole film. I liked it quite a bit up to that point, but as soon as that happened my enjoyment of it dropped several levels. 

Yes, he's a no-maj, and I get that the Wizarding World needs to keep their existence a secret. But he helped Newt and the others save the day. He's a goddamned hero! And after all that, President Picquery STILL insists on wiping his memory, saying there can be no exceptions. Screw her!

It's just plain bad writing, and a terrible way to treat the best character in the entire film. He deserved a better fate, especially when there were probably numerous magical ways to get around the issue.

This is no different than if, say in Star Wars: A New Hope, Princess Leia had Han Solo arrested after he helped destroy the Death Star. "The Rebellion is grateful for everything you've done for it, Mr. Solo, but we can't ignore the fact that you're a smuggler of dangerous and illegal goods. I'm afraid I'm going to have to have to place you under arrest. Guards! Seize this man and transport him to the Prison Planet immediately!"

And yes, I know the final scene implies the memories of his adventure may be returning, but it's too little too late. Wiping his mind was nothing more than cruel and unusual punishment. Not to mention a violation of his civil rights. Who the hell does the Wizarding Communinty think it is, anyway? It makes them all look like a bunch of assholes. Their world's supposed to be better and more fun than ours, not the same or worse.

• For a film called Fantastic Creatures And Where To Find Them, I didn't think the various magical creatures were all that "fantastic." Most of them just seemed to be variations on, or combinations of, animals we already have.

Like the niffler, for example. That's nothing more than a goddamned echidna (look it up) with a duck beak.

• Eddie Redmayne seemed to be channeling Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame in this film. In fact I could easily see Redmayne as a future incarnation of the Doctor, if he ever decided to give up movies for TV.

His appearance here as Newt Scamander was much, much better than his bizarre performance in Jupiter Ascending.

• Dan Fogler was also perfectly cast as the hapless no-maj Jacob Kowalski. Amazingly, Michael Cera (!) and Josh Gad (!!) were originally considered for the role. We should all give thanks to the Movie Gods that that didn't happen.

• Newt wears a gray and yellow scarf in the film, indicating he was sorted into Hufflepuff House during his time at Hogwarts.

• When Newt meets Mary Lou Barebone on the street, she asks him, "Are you a seeker? A seeker of truth?" He replies, "More of a chaser."

That line's probably meant to indicate he played Quidditch while at Hogwarts.

• At one point Newt mentions his ex, Leta Lestrange, and seems reluctant to talk about her.

According to Newt's official backstory (which doesn't appear in the film), he and Leta were an item during their time at Hogwarts, as they both liked studying magical creatures. Unfortunately one of Leta's experiments went wrong, almost killing a fellow student. Newt didn't want to see her expelled, so he took the blame and was thrown out of Hogwarts. This is supposedly why he doesn't want to talk about her to anyone.

It's also not clear if Leta is related to Bellatrix Lestrange, one of the villains of the Harry Potter franchise.

At one point in the film we see that Newt carries a photo of Leta, who's played by Zoe Kravitz. Even though she doesn't physically star in this film, I'd say it's a good bet she'll pop up in the inevitable sequels, as it's unlikely they'd hire a fairly well-known actress to appear as a photo.

• Tina mentions attending Ilvermorny, which is the American School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

I don't know how much time J.K. Rowling's spent in America, but it isn't enough. "Ilvermorny" is possibly the least American-sounding name imaginable. It sounds like an English person's idea of what a school in the States would be called.

Fantastic Beasts takes place in early December of 1926. Supposedly Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort, was born on December 31, 1926 (in the Harry Potter books, at least).

• In the Harry Potter franchise, one of the more frequently used spells was "accio," which was used to find any lost or hidden object. For example, by saying, "Accio keys," you could cause your misplaced keys to fly through the air and into your hand.

So why doesn't Newt just use the accio spell to bring all his escaped creatures to him?

At first I thought maybe the accio spell might not have existed in 1926. But at one point Tina uses it to find someone's wand or something, so it obviously was in use then.

This is a common problem in films featuring magic or superpowers. It's tough to come up with plot points that can't be solved with a flick of a wand or superspeed.

• Newt insists that the creatures in his suitcase are all harmless. However, when he's trying to catch the erumpent in Central Park, he tosses a football helmet to Jacob and says, "Put this on!" Jacob asks, "But why would I have to wear something like this?" Newt replies, "Because your skull is susceptible to breakage under immense force!" 

Later on a swooping evil gets loose from Newt's case, and pokes around at an unconscious auror's ears. Newt shouts to the creature, "Leave his brains!"

Um… those don't sound very harmless to me.

• Twice during the film, Tina marches into the MACUSA headquarters and barges right into President Picquery's office, interrupting an important meeting. 

Apparently in the Wizarding World there are no security guards or receptionists to intercept unauthorized visitors.

Tina used to be an auror, which is sort of like a police detective. So her action was the equivalent of an ex-cop waltzing into the White House and interrupting our President in the Oval Office. I seriously doubt that would ever be allowed to happen once, much less twice.

Later on Graves discovers that Newt has an obscurus in his suitcase, and immediately orders him and Tina both to be executed. Holy crap! Who the hell does he think he is, Judge Dredd?

Like Tina, Graves is an auror, the magical equivalent of a cop. Why would he have the authority to order the immediate death of a citizen? Even worse, President Picquery's standing right there when he gives the order, and doesn't say a word.

I guess that's that then! One word from a magic cop and you're life's over! Jesus Christ! Apparently they don't have trials or due process in the Wizarding World? Anyone can just order your execution at any time, and there's no getting out of it.

Suddenly the Wizarding World doesn't seem like such a fun place.

I know what you're thinking. This is a movie about wizards, and I'm thinking way too hard about it.

Feh, I say! See, it's all about grounding. For every fantastical thing the film asks me to believe, it's got to balance it with something else that's real. Otherwise it becomes utter nonesense.

I'm willing to accept whimsical monsters, people who can teleport and a suitcase with infinite storage space. But cops who can barge into Presidential meetings and order the immediate execution of citizens? Nope! That's going too far. 

Adding some realistic bureaucratic rules and regulations to the MACUSA headquarters would have been a great way to ground the story just a bit, and make the whole thing more believable.

• While poking around the internet researching this film, I discovered that many viewers were shocked by the stunning revelation that Percival Graves was really Gellert Grindelwald in disguise (!).

Seriously? No one saw that coming? I figured it out pretty much the first time Graves appeared onscreen, and I'm usually terrible at foreseeing plot twists.

The "clues," if you can call them that, were all pretty obvious. Graves has a very similar hairstyle to Grindelwald. Graves acts like an asshole every time we see him, for no good reason. And most telling of all, Graves gives Credence Barebone a magical necklace to use if he needs to summon him. The necklace contains the symbol of the Deathly Hallows. In the Harry Potter books, the symbol was identified with Grindelwald during his reign of terror in the 1920s. How much more evident could it have been?

This isn't bragging on my part, by the way, I just thought it was all patently obvious. Who else could Grindelwald have turned out to be? There weren't any other suspects in the story.

It reminds me of when I was fourteen and wrote a mystery story. I showed it to a friend and was dismayed when he immediately figured out the identity of the murderer. When I asked how, he said, "There're only two characters in your story— the detective and the suspect." That's how I felt about this stunning revelation.

• At the end of the movie, Newt tells Tina he's going to write a book. True to his word, he writes Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them in 1927 (the year after this movie's set). In the world of the Harry Potter books, Fantastic Beasts becomes a big best seller, and an approved textbook at Hogwarts. By the time Harry Potter attends school, the book is in its 52nd edition.

Newt Scamander also has his own chocolate frog trading card.

• The story takes place in 1926. At the end of the film, Jacob finally opens his bakery, which lis a huge success.

Until three years later, that is, when the Great Depression hits. Overnight his business will dry up, he'll be forced to close up shop, he'll become penniless and his landlord will find him hanging from the light fixture in his dingy apartment. 
Goodnight, everyone!

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling's attempt at draining every last ounce of cash that may still be left in the Harry Potter franchise. It's an OK film that has all of Rowling's typical trademarks, including her odd sense of pacing, a "mystery" that's patently obvious and a surprisingly dark tone. I hated the way it treated one of the main characters so much that it negatively impacted my enjoyment of the film, forcing it down a letter grade. I give it a B.

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