Silver Screen Resolution: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

This year, I’ve resolved to see twelve new-to-me spec fic movies in a no-doubt vain attempt at catching up with popular culture. One movie per month, the results of watching said movie discussed at the beginning of the next month. I made myself some rules.

  1. It must be spec-fic. For review here on Spec-Chic and for myself. I just prefer it.  Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. Even kid’s movies if they fit one of those genres!
  2. For the most part, the movie must be popular spec-fic. Something people around me have been talking about.
  3. I have to see at least a third of them in the theater, for the truest “in the moment” connection. This rule amended. Movies seen in theater will be part of the Sound Off! instead of the Silver Screen Resolution posts.

This month was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Why I Chose It: Honestly, I didn’t. As the end of the year approached, my interest in various spec movies kind of waned. I’d seen the big ones by this point (Fury Road, Arrival) and the ones that I’d been interested in (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Attack the Block), so I crowd-sourced my final movie choices. That worked out last month because I really loved Crimson Peak. Did letting other people choose work out for me this month? Read on!

Why I Didn’t Go See It Originally: Okay, so I had a slew of reasons not to see this. 1) I haven’t finished the Harry Potter movies, and somehow I wanted to see those first (though not very intensely). 2) It’s a prequel movie. I don’t really like prequel movies. They never seem to work out — the stakes always feel lesser, like the set-up they kind of are. 3) Eddie Freaking Redmayne. He’s just so peculiar and sometimes he’s too peculiar, and I spend the whole movie being distracted by him (Jupiter Ascending). 4) I hadn’t read the book. I assumed the book was mostly just a bestiary tie-in to Rowling’s world and didn’t actually have a storyline. So I had extreme doubts they could turn a list of magical animals into a movie worth seeing. And then there was a screenplay? I just was utterly unclear on where this storyline came from.

What I think now that I’ve seen it: I feel like musicians who write scores are not paid enough. Three seconds into the theme song, and I was all giddy with excitement. So there’s that. Good job, James Newton Howard!

SPOILERS BELOW


I have such mixed feelings about franchise series. The line between giving the viewer enough of what we want and giving us too much that we don’t want it at all is so thin and easily crossed. I was excited about Star Wars going back to do their prequels. Then, of course, I saw them. Burned that franchise pretty much to the ground for me. I did watch The Force Awakens and enjoyed it, but I couldn’t get through Rogue One.

Ditto Star Trek. Tired of it now.

Ditto the whole Tolkien series. Too much just stop.

So I expected to be bored or aggravated when watching Fantastic Beasts. The thing is….

Somehow, for me, this movie had way better legs than I expected. I fell right on into this world. It didn’t feel like Harry Potter-lite. It didn’t feel like everything in this movie was marking time until the real story came along. The idea of more movies in the Harry Potter universe suddenly seems very appealing. I have a lot of qualms about the way JK Rowling’s expanded into the Americas, but… the movie was fun. Apparently this is going to be my franchise, along with the Marvel universe. I heard there’s a sequel being filmed and my first response was, “Ooooh, gimme!”

Things I Liked:

This is one of those movies where Eddie Redmayne’s weirdo take on characterization really works. He’s odd and he’s meant to be odd. Odd even by the standards of magical folk.

I look like an action hero, right?

I liked the sisters — both with their own burdens; Tina a Hermione type — smart, pushy, not particularly liked. Queenie, a mind-reader, and apparently that’s not popular even among magical folk. And of course, the muggle, Jacob Kowalski, who could have been the protagonist in a slightly different movie.

I liked that it was a truly ensemble movie: none of the four characters really felt like a sidekick.

And I loved the pretty-pretty prettiness of it. The beasts are fun and convincing enough to keep me in the movie. I loved the whole natural historian angle that Newt took. I would honestly have watched Newt’s zoo care tips on these animals for a whole movie.

The awesome Thunderbird

It’s got kind of an OZ effect to it. New York is grim and cold and full of neutral tones: black and white and beige and grey. Newt’s suitcase zoo is brilliant colors and warmth and wonder. And so the end effect of things leaking out from his suitcase is oddly pleasing. It feels redemptive. The world is dark and horrible, but Newt can make it better by bringing the magical animals back. I loved that. One of my pet peeves (no pun intended) with SF & F movies/books is how rarely people seem to interact with animals, so I should have expected to like this.

I loved that despite the prettiness of the movie and the genuine camaraderie of the four characters that the movie was surprisingly grim. Newt’s goals are peaceful, happy goals — to bring a beast back to its own land. But the world he steps into is dark, full of callous council magicians, child abuse, power plays, and a general aura of cruelty. They’re going to execute Tina and Newt without any trial and in a particularly unpleasant way that rivals the Dementors from Harry’s timeline. And I loved the Obscurial — the answer to a question I didn’t know I had about Rowling’s world: what happens to a magical child who’s forced to smother his own magic?

Obscurial. Not a good thing.

I loved that a lot of stuff was fairly subtle (by blockbuster movie standards). Newt’s kind of a dingbat, but at the same time, we slowly realize that he must be pretty damn good at what he does, not only to have captured safely all these creatures, but to have separated an obscurial from a child. He’s apparently willing to do or try things other people consider impossible. I loved that Queenie seems entirely serene until you take her to a bar full of people and then there’s a moment where she seems kind of miserable — a mind-reader in a bar — but it’s never held up for deliberate scrutiny. I loved that you can see Tina’s frustration and unhappiness. She’s also good at her job, but… she’s not liked, not trusted, cast aside. She’s too intense — a cardinal sin for a woman. I get the impression that even if she hadn’t attacked the Barebones woman to protect a child, she would still have been discounted and overlooked.

And Jacob, who could have easily been played just for laughs, is sympathetic. His story is told the most clearly, but that clarity does something interesting. Ex-soldier, factory job, desire to be a baker… it makes his dreams feel oddly exotic to these magical types, which in turn really made me buy the magical world as its own culture.

I loved Queenie falling for Kowalski. Give me a mind-reader, and I’m ready to believe in near insta-love. I was on tenterhooks toward the end, hoping that they would get their happy ending.

I really loved Kowalski’s constant “wow” about the world.

The villains are genuinely creepy. Both the muggle and the magical. WTF, Barebones lady! You’re a living nightmare!

But mostly I loved how Newt and Tina, though nearly executed by the Macusa, never really considered fleeing. There’s an Obscurial to deal with, after all. But not to fight or kill! No, these two want to save it. I loved that. They’re not soldiers; they’re rescuers.

Things I’m Neutral On:

I thought the pacing was kind of weird in the beginning. I kept turning to my long-suffering friend and saying, “Wait, is Jacob supposed to be the lead?” and “Wait, does this movie actually have a plot?”

A lot of that is undoubtedly due to Newt’s characterization. He’s not… active. He has a goal, but it’s a small goal. And a lot of his beginning stuff is just trying to clean up a mess he made with very little sense that he might be getting into real trouble. He’s not an action hero is what I’m saying. And I’m okay with that. But it does cause some entry issues for the average viewer (Hi! I’m an average viewer!). Once they have to escape the Ministry, then things are locked into place, all the loose strings connecting seamlessly.

But there are definitely places where you have to stop thinking about plot and just go with the flow. I think the scene where Newt and Jacob re-capture the love-lorn giant rhino thingy went on for a really long time. It was like a scene narrated by David Attenborough for Blue Planet. Sure, don’t worry about anything, Newt. You go right ahead and do a mating dance for your Erumpent. We’ll wait.

I thought a couple of the beasts were less convincing than others. Murtlap, I’m looking at you, you weird rat-toothed piggy-anemone!

It bites, too. Just to add to the yuck factor.

And the platypus Niffler thing. You’re just irritating, go away. I blame the fact that Redmayne had to interact a lot with a CGI creature and that’s often clunky.

You’re just not that cute, Niffler.

I worried about the suitcase as a concept, a lot. It seemed like a poor idea to have a portable zoo that you walked into and then could be shut in and carried off in. Like… don’t you have a key from the inside? Or a way to prevent strangers from taking it? This is not responsible, Newt!

Freaking Ezra Miller. He’s a scene-stealer. He just is. And he definitely walked that line of both fascinating and repugnant, which is kind of hard to watch.

My first name is Credence. My last name is Barebones. My middle name: Creeptastic. Nice to meet you.

Things I Didn’t Like:

On a petty tiny note, not actually movie-related. I didn’t like the term no-maj for the American muggle. I know Rowling picked it, but you know, it’s just… clunky. I like the idea that we’d have different slang across the oceans, but. No-maj? You have to mess with the spelling! It should be no-mag(ic) and obviously she couldn’t do that because no-mag is different… argh. It’s just not tripping off the tongue.

I feel like I missed a step somewhere where they explained who Graves was, and how he’d been replaced by Grindelwald with no one the wiser. Knowing Rowling’s world, I guess it’s a polyjuice thing, but… meh. No one really seemed surprised.

I didn’t like the weirdly-forced conversation between Newt and Queenie about his ex-girlfriend/crush interest and the schools. It was the only place that really felt like it was there just to link itself to the Harry Potter movies. If Queenie wanted to make Newt’s romantic past known to Tina, this was a boring way to do it.

I didn’t really like that Grindelwald himself showed up. I think it might have been just as powerful or more so to have it just be one of his sympathizers in high places. Because really that’s always been the single most horrifying bit of Harry Potter’s world–the bureaucracy is either incompetent or evil or even worse: complicit. Voldemort is appalling, but for my money, Delores Umbridge is far more frightening. I also am disenchanted with Johnny Depp and was really enjoying Colin Farrell as the villain, so… yeah, that was annoying.

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But overall, I really enjoyed this. It felt like a second-world urban fantasy to me, and that’s always a delight. Aimless hero gets sucked into a world of problems and with his newfound friends saves the day. Plus, I really loved the Obscurial. Really. I borrowed this movie from my mother, and I have to break the news to her: she’s not getting it back. Sorry, Mom! I want to rewatch it!

All screencaps from movie-screencaps.com

4 Comments

  • Shara White November 1, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    I look forward to re-watching this one. I’m waiting on my husband to read the Harry Potter books, as we’re re-watching the movies as he finishes the books for the first time, so it’s going to be a while before we get to this movie (which he won’t read the book for, but he knows it wasn’t filmed until the movies and books were over, so…..)

    Reply
    • Lane Robins November 7, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      But see, I think it’s such a stand-alone, he doesn’t need to wait! And in fact, it might actually make the later books better, if you already know who Grindelwald was and why he was a bad bad man, instead of an Oh, BTW, Dumbledore once got in with a really bad crowd. Plus, he should watch it for SCIENCE! To see how this one comes across if you haven’t finished the books/earlier movies. FOR SCIENCE, Shara!

      Reply
      • Shara White November 7, 2017 at 9:45 pm

        I’ll see if that explanation works on him! 😉

        Reply
  • J.L. Gribble November 6, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Yeah…Give me Colin Farrell over Johnny Depp any day. :-/

    Reply

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