Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Dr. Strange is a tough act to follow, and here I am following it with another major studio's massive spectacle about sorcery. But as a fan of both the Harry Potter books and the accompanying booklet of the same title, I eagerly accepted my parents' invitation to see it with them on Thanksgiving.

Given the booklet's existence as a mere fictional bestiary, this could not really be an adaptation in the same sense as the HP movies. Instead, it's about a brief adventure of wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in 1926, the year before his bestiary is said to be published. Since Harry's main set of adventures takes place in the '90s, we get none of the same actors and very few familiar names -- apart from Newt, just occasional mentions of headmaster Albus Dumbledore and his fugitive former friend Gellert Grindelwald. Author J.K. Rowling did write the story, so we can still count on it for fidelity -- and indeed, it still feels like the same realm.

At this point, Newt's not doing any biology research exactly. He comes to New York City in order to look for a rare beast to acquire. Unfortunately, he brings several other magical beasts in a magical suitcase that is not as secure as needed. This garners the undesired attention of random non-wizard Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and disgraced policewitch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), the latter of whom would have Newt punished and Jacob's memory wiped immediately if not for compromising circumstances. The bigger problem comes when something publicly kills in a way that no normal animal could. Newt insists it's none of his pets, but he takes it upon himself to determine what it is and how they can stop it before the whole city knows that magic exists.

Good thing Jacob isn't one of those "No-Majs" who both believe in and want to oppress wizards by law. Indeed, the broke aspiring baker is rather comical in his regular-guy harmlessness as he comes to grips with one mind-blowing revelation after another. He also forms an improbable attachment to Tina's roommate, Queenie (Alison Sudol), an accidentally mind-reading ditz. Too bad the U.S. magical community is even more isolationist than the U.K.'s....

For all his knowledge, Newt doesn't seem any wiser than Jacob. He certainly doesn't fancy himself half as charismatic. And Tina's low enough on competence that we can imagine how she got demoted. If you're looking for new characters as intriguing as the '90s students and staff of Hogwarts, you'll probably be disappointed. But then, how much can you expect when these people hardly used to exist on paper?

I do appreciate the difference in villains herein. Antagonists in the HP series tend to come across as complete monsters who will kill any number of innocent bystanders to grab power. But in FBaWtFT, the beasts act on their natures, the neo-puritans seem to mean well, the Magical Congress of the USA is harsh yet arguably fair, the public killer is pitiably out of control, and even Grindelwald has more nuanced reasons for contravening the laws of the land.

My dad expressed surprise at how dark the film gets. I guess he doesn't remember the last four HP entries very well. David Yates directed those four as well as this one. I was actually impressed at how much FBaWtFT gets into wacky antics, particularly as the heroes struggle to round up the beasts on the loose (not as many as you might think), which range from cute to daunting. Even when characters fear for their lives, the audience may still be chuckling. But yes, these scenes are balanced by moments of rather Gothic gloom to be taken seriously -- and Yates does a good job of pacing the mood transitions so that they don't jar us.

The other emotion to be evoked, of course, is awe at the art. CG has advanced a bit even since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in 2011, and this time it's particularly in the service of depicting the titular beasts. Lest you think of Newt as a glorified Pokémon trainer, rest assured that he never harms them and that his suitcase contains a space more accommodating than the average No-Maj zoo. And for all the mischief that the critters can get into, a few of them prove to be of service in combating the bigger threat.

Putting aside the beasts, I'm thinking of renting the DVD to look for extras regarding the wizard world's trappings. At the very least, I would pause to read all the headlines on wizard newspapers and take a closer look at the magical night club.

Ultimately, I like FBaWtFT better than the average HP silver-screen entry. It helps that we don't already know the whole story going in.

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