November 17, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I shall call him Groot

Grade: B
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Jon Voight
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 13 min.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t a great film. It largely shows the distended strain of a 120-page book bloated into a 133-minute movie. But this adaptation and amplification of author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter supplement might also be one of the year’s most timely and subversive films.

Rowling’s original source book, published in 2001, is fashioned as Harry Potter's copy of the textbook of the same name mentioned in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Its menagerie of magical creatures carries over to the film’s screenplay, also and more recently penned by Rowling, which fleshes out a new storyline revolving around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his 1926 trip from England to New York City.

Scamander is a former Hogwarts prodigy turned mysterious castout who carries around a leather suitcase that’s acts as a portal into a alt-dimension housing exotic beasts collected from around the world. The bewildered Scamander quickly misplaces his travel case into the unwitting hands of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a portly, aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American version of a Muggle).

Audiences spend the film’s first half trying to understand Redmayne as he method acts his way through a Gen Y trifle. Indeed, Scamander and Kowalski spend the film’s first half tracking and recapturing Scamander’s critters as they escape and run rampant around Manhattan. A Niffler is a long-snouted marsupial with a penchant for anything shiny; the Demiguise is blessed with invisibility and limited clairvoyance; an Occamy is a blue bird that enlarges or shrinks to fit any available space; the expansive Thunderbird is native to the arid Arizona climate; and an Erumpent is a huge rhino replicant that happens to be in heat. The film gets bogged down in Scamander and Kowalski’s hijinks, including their goofy interplay with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted bureaucratic witch, and her randy sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).

But Fantastic Beasts eventually, and thankfully, finds footing in its social and religious allegory. The film begins as an immigrant’s story, with Scamander entering the U.S. via Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. He finds a divided America, with one extreme being a radical group of No-Majs calling themselves The Second Salemers, dedicated to exposing and killing witches and wizards. Meanwhile, sorcerers have been forced underground, where they operate a shadow government that includes their own congress, president (Carmen Ejogo) and security force headed by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

The dark heart of colonial-era Salem’s war on witchcraft was actually religious oppression and persecution. The unease between No-Majs and wizards mirrors our real-life unrest between Westerners and the historic “Others,” most recently Muslims in both America and Rowling’s native England. The most hard-edged analog comes with the appearance of Obscurials, a dark, uncontrollable force created by children and young adults out of a need to suppress their magic, for fear that a No-Maj may discover them. Once released, Obscurials wreak havoc, demolish buildings and even kill perceived enemies—in one instance a prominent politician, the sire of newspaper magnate Jon Voight. Many, including other wizards, believe the terrorists, er, Obsurdials must be wiped out before they irrevocably turn No-Majs against the wizard community. Others, like Scamander, preaches efforts to understand and alleviate the underlying shame and repression giving rise to the danger.

It’s a provocative take on terrorism and its root causes that’s liable to breeze through all the whimsy. In both fact and fiction, there’s a tension between those preaching tolerance and those espousing protectionism and security. Director David Yates’ rich, baroque setting provides a worthy springboard for Rowling’s Harry Potter spin-off. The course of its future narratives, however, is up to us.

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