Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 24, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

After completing her wizarding opus, J.K. Rowling said she was going to take a break from Harry Potter. Her sole excursion into the world of general fiction received mixed reviews and Rowling hastily returned to her broomsticks and Snitches. First there was an interactive website. Instead of giving fans a full-blown sequel series next, Harry’s adventure continued in a divisive stage play. And now the latest attempt to extend the brand, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” has arrived. Inspired by a brief textbook, the film is set in Harry’s world but sixty years before his birth. Rowling wrote the script herself and expects the film to be the first in a five part series. Perhaps in hopes of guaranteeing this franchise, Warner Brothers brought back director David Yates, who made them a lot of money with his last four “Potter” films.

The new film addresses some of my grievances with Rowling’s universe. Set in 1926, it follows magical zoologist Newt Scamander as he arrives in New York City. Following a mix-up, several of his fantastic beasts escape into the city. His quest to retrieve them dovetails with a sinister plot inside the wizard community to end the masquerade. Instead of setting itself entirely within the snug world of magic, “Fantastic Beasts” directly concerns how wizards and regular humans interact. A government agency covers up magical activity, regularly rewriting the memories of muggles like wand-wielding Men in Black. The main villain wants to stop this practice, believing a war between humans and wizards to be inevitable. It still doesn’t cover all my concerns. I find it difficult to believe that such a large subculture could function undetected, much less in a city as crowded as New York. But at least J.K. is trying.

Considering Rowling’s books have been the target of conservative shitheels, it’s surprising that Rowling has never commented on religious nut jobs. One of the tools utilized in the villain’s overly elaborate scheme are the Second Salemers. That is an organization eager to bring back the burning times, fearful of the witches living among us. The improbably named leader is Mary Lou Barebone, a psychopathic child abuser. Rowling’s criticism of religious extremism is shallow. The Second Salemers being manipulated by the very forces they rally against is barely commented on. Instead, Rowling draws a parallel between the way hardcore Christians abuse gays and other minorities. (The out and open Ezra Miller being cast as a repressed wizard, and frequent target of Barebone’s rage, seems to support this.) Still, it is interesting to see the role traditional religion plays in Potter’s world.

Truthfully, the Second Salemers are far more interesting the film’s actual villain. Some asshole named Grindelwald is the one eager to start the muggle/wizard world. He’s another one of Rowling’s evil wizards, often referenced but unrevealed until the very end, with a convoluted master plan packed with unnecessary steps. (He also apparently has some deeper connection with Potter lore, which I don’t care about.) The film’s hero is equally non-compelling. And it’s mostly Eddie Redmayne’s fault. Redmanye’s acting is as obnoxiously showy as ever. He saddles the character with a series of distracting quirks. He bumbles, trembles, and whispers important things, a tactic Redmanye often employs. By now, it’s clear that Redmayne is a one trick pony and it’s a shame he’s already tricked the Academy.

Yet the grating leading man and the boring adversary are less important then the motherfuckin’ monsters. Yes, some fantastic beasts are indeed on display. An early sequence is devoted to Scamander’s pet Niffler, an echidna looking thing with an obsession with gold, running amok in a bank. Later, we meet an invisible monkey creature that can predict the future and an angry porcupine covered in spaghetti. Scamander’s sidekick is a walking stick like living plant, which helps him out of a few jams. These critters are certainly more interesting then the Flying Doom, a swooping reptile whose memory-erasing venom becomes one of those plot devices Rowling loves so much.

The most eye-catching sequence occurs when Newt steps down into the Tardis-like suitcase he carries. Inside, Yates’ camera spins around the magical environment, a truly impressive computer generated set. We casually pass several intriguing creatures. Like magical lions, squid-faced horses, disappearing dodo birds, giant dung beetles nonchalantly stacking rocks, and a magnificently imposing thunderbird. (David Yates delights in utilizing the 3D effects, throwing shit into the viewer’s eyes, meaning his direction is more colorful then his overly gloomy “Potter” films.)

There are two particular beast-centric scenes that impressed me. The first involves an Erumpent – a massive, rhino-like creature that contains an explosive chemical in its horn – rampaging through central park. It burst through a zoo, leading the memorable sight of an emu running through the snowy park. In a goofy visual pun, the horned creature is in heat. Horny, if you will. What follows is a highly amusing slapstick sequence devoted to Newt and his friend attempting to capture the aroused beasts. Another notable sequence revolves around the Occamy, a Quetzalcoatl like feathered serpent that changes sizes depending on its location. Newt corners the beastie in Macy’s, the huge snake leaping around the room and eventually being caught in an unexpected way.

If Redmayne is a shrug worthy leading man, the film makes up for it with a lovable supporting cast. I especially like Dan Folger as Jacob, the muggle and would-be baker who accidentally gets caught up in Newt’s adventure. Folger provides the comically bemused straight man to the magical shenanigans. At first, he’s confused, then horrified, and then enchanted by the wonderful creatures around him. Katherine Waterston is amusingly neurotic as Tina, the wizard cop who stumbles upon Newt’s adventure. Like Jacob, she’s more down-to-earth then the spacey protagonist. My favorite is Alison Sudol as Queenie, Tina’s telepathic sister who is absolutely charming, a bubbly presence that elevates every scene she’s in. Ron Perlman is well cast as a goblin gangster, now CGI creations instead of little people in make-up.

When focused on retrieving Newt’s escaped critters, “Fantastic Beasts” is nicely entertaining. When it turns attention towards the evil wizard business, it drags. Colin Farrell sleepwalks through the functionary villain role. His master plan is to unleash the power behind Ezra Miller’s Credence, a shrieking role nearly as obnoxiously showy as Redmayne’s. This manifests as a swirling CGI cloud, which tears through the city. Considering all the neat monsters in the film, I don’t know why it would focus its finale on something this generic and uninteresting. Why not a bad ass dragon or kaiju-scale beast? Why a pissed-off meteorological event? When will Hollywood learn that CGI destruction clouds are boring antagonist? It’s also odd for a “Harry Potter” film, usually a more introspective franchise, to double-down on the urban destruction in the last act.

“Fantastic Beasts” certainly leaves enough dangling plot threads for a sequel, featuring recognizable actors in small parts. Jon Voight is cast as a Hearst-like newspaper mogul, a part which has little to do with the main plot. Zoe Kravitz has a blink-and-miss-it role as Newt’s long lost lover. An A-lister puts in a surprise appearance as Grindelwald. The villain is left alive, in order to return and vex the hero further. This is some of the least interesting stuff in the movie so, hopefully, the sequel will also double down on the fantastic beasts. Considering the box office has already exceeded the budget, Newt Scamander will certainly return. The first film is a pleasant time killer. Since Rowling is no longer bound to Y.A. formula, the budding franchise has the potential to be more entertaining then any of the proper “Potter” flicks. [7/10]

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