Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fantastic Beasts: Expanding The Wizarding World


I'm too much of a fan to not check out whatever J.K. Rowling gives us - she's by far the number-one inspiration behind my writing. The world of Harry Potter has touched my entire generation and then some, and as Rowling proves in the long-awaited Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them movie prequel, it's not a world you'll soon want to leave the moment you've set foot in it. For proof, look no further than the crowd that gathered when I saw the movie today. A short line at first, but while my friend and I got our snacks, the line tripled in length. (At least we were able to pass that time talking with another moviegoer. Take it from me - espresso chip milkshakes make a shockingly magnificent conversation starter.) None who gathered in that theater today were disappointed. Together with David Yates in the director's chair once again, Rowling weaves another truly magical and incredible story, taking us back in time and halfway across the world from Harry's adolescent years.

Now with a hearty helping of the Roaring Twenties.

Fantastic Beasts was, like a few other books from within the Potterverse, defictionalized and sold on Muggle bookstore shelves years ago. (Even though I'm now aware of the American term "No-Maj," I still have considerable trouble not saying "Muggle.") So when the news of this movie trilogy (now expanded to five films) first broke, my first assumption was that it would prove to be something of an Indiana Jones-style magical adventure, following Newt Scamander as he travels the world in search of these magical creatures. I've known this for a while now thanks to the trailers, but this movie defies those expectations thoroughly. It takes place almost entirely in late-1920s New York, and while the first shot of the city lingers long on the Statue of Liberty, this place is no land of the free and home of the brave, whether it be the Wizarding or No-Maj world.

While the original Harry Potter series was no slouch in the social-commentary department, Fantastic Beasts, particularly in the wake of the travesty that was the 2016 US election, feels acutely timely. While the No-Maj community in New York deals with Prohibition, the Wizarding community in America tries way too hard to keep itself separated, to the point of enacting anti-miscegenation laws and strictly demanding that all No-Majes be Obliviated. It's a reactionary response to the rise of Grindelwald in Europe - which is covered, briefly, at the very start of the movie, first in a scene where the man himself (by now you've probably seen the screenshot of bleached-blond, in-character Johnny Depp from behind) takes out a few of his enemies, and then in a montage of news articles about Grindelwald, and increased security measures enacted by MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the USA). It's very much inspired by America post-9/11 too, right down to the "high-alert" system on display in MACUSA headquarters, which uses the same color scale as the post-9/11 terror alert system we had.

American wizards may be a touchy bunch, but it's not like the No-Majes are much better. It certainly doesn't help that there's a seriously high-and-mighty New Salem Preservation Society trying to make a name for itself in New York. Its leader, Mary Lou Barebone, feels straight out of Stephen King, or perhaps American Horror Story: Coven, in her religious extremism, especially as she forces children (some of whom she's adopted, given positively Puritan names like Credence and Modesty, and abuses to no end - Ezra Miller, as Credence, spends the movie looking scared shitless at every turn) to distribute pamphlets as she stridently rails about the dangers witches and wizards pose to society. She even attempts to expand her audience in a deal with Hearst-esque media mogul Henry Shaw (Jon Voight, playing a role that's minimal but apropos for a Trump apologist.) On all sides, Wizarding and No-Maj alike, the evils of social conservatism are on full display, and intolerance is the order of the day.

It's a contentious, dangerous world, a powder keg waiting to go off.

Enter Newt Scamander.

This is the second Eddie Redmayne movie I've seen, but I'm ashamed to say that the first was Jupiter Ascending, in which he played quite an ineffectual villain. As Newt, however, Redmayne gets to be much more himself. Eccentric, a bit blundering, but very capable, and, in my friend's view, downright adorable. Quintessentially British, setting the character up for a bit of culture shock in New York - at least once, he comments that American society is backwards, specifically citing MACUSA's anti-miscegenation laws.

What really gets the movie going is when one of the magical creatures he's carrying in a suitcase, a treasure-hunting niffler, escapes and starts tearing apart a bank for gold and silver. In the ensuing ruckus, he manages to mix up his case with that of No-Maj and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. (It doesn't help that their cases are virtually identical, except for the obvious fact that Newt's has a whole magical zoo inside.) The niffler, and a few other creatures, manage to get out and wreak holy hell of so many kinds. Meanwhile, MACUSA has their hands full with some mysterious No-Maj deaths, which appear to be the work of one of these creatures. It's up to Newt, as well as Jacob, and of course the Goldstein sisters, Queenie and Tina (the former a sweet but socially-awkward Legilimens, the latter a disgraced ex-Auror) to set things right.

Unlike most of the Harry Potter movies (with the exception of Deathly Hallows, Part 2), Fantastic Beasts takes place in a relatively short span of time, during which the plot tends to move at two speeds - breakneck and Gringotts train cart. The twists fly thick and fast, often subverting and even double-subverting expectations. One, in particular, makes so much more sense if you've seen The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Along the way, we the viewers are treated to some serious visual wonder, as spellcasting sparks fly and beasts run amok in the streets - and, sometimes, run around in well-crafted facsimiles of their natural habitats inside Newt's suitcase. This part is particularly beautifully filmed, with extremely long shots shifting gracefully between environments ranging from deserts to jungles to snowcapped mountains and following Kowalski's wide-eyed amazement alongside our own. And, of course, the aforementioned social commentary. I won't give any spoilers, but let's just say that the creature that proves to be the biggest threat in the story (which, by the way, is NOT mentioned in the defictionalized FB book) is a manifestation of the extreme stress of not being allowed to come as you are, just as the dementors are a physical manifestation of depression. (Incidentally, it also sheds some light on the fate of one side character in the original stories - now we have a stronger idea how that character wound up dying.) If you thought the original Harry Potter books and movies were scary enough, there are sections of this movie that are a total emotional horror show.

Again, though...visual wonder. Keep that in mind, and also keep in mind that Newt Scamander is one of the closest things to a superhero the Harry Potter world has ever known. Even more so than Harry himself, I'm thinking. There's one scene in particular where Newt and his new American friends stop to watch before taking action as the deadliest monster of them all cuts swaths of destruction through the city. In that scene, as Newt takes off running and/or Apparating after the creature, one of the first things that came to mind for me was Spider-Man. Maybe it has a little something to do with Eddie Redmayne being good friends with Andrew Garfield in real life (or so I've heard.) Or maybe because Newt really does feel like a vintage Spidey of sorts, particularly in terms of personality. Passionate about what he does, but in the real world, something of an awkward geek.

I can't say whether or not Rowling had Marvel in mind when she wrote this screenplay. In any case, the product she presented to us is Marvel-quality, and coming from the one guy on the planet who counts The Amazing Spider-Man movies as his all-time favorites, that's high praise. As I expected from the outset, I give Fantastic Beasts an A+.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

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