starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell
written by J.K. Rowling
directed by David Yates
by Walter Chaw J.K. Rowling is more plotter than writer or editor, more rambling fantasist than disciplined storyteller--explanation there as to why her Harry Potter novels aren't classics so much as very popular stories for children. This also explains why Rowling flinched at the prospect of Harry martyring himself at the end, something the entire series leads up to. Rowling betrays, too, heroine Hermione, the logical successor to Dumbledore's seat, not wife to Harry's drippy buddy. She didn't have the heart, she says, to do the things she should have done, and so produced books you'll grow out of. And quickly. The film adaptations (like Beethoven's Symphonies, only the odd ones are good, and you should skip the first) are uneven largely because they're best when the folks doing the adapting take Rowling's ideas and craft narratives and narrative subtext from/for them--and worst when they try to pack in all those volumes of blandly discursive blather to please a massive fanbase. Asking Rowling herself to write the screenplay for David Yates's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (hereafter Fantastic Beasts), then, has yielded exactly the expected result: the film is bloated, boring at times, rambling most others; and it's rich with genuine ideas and an honest-to-goodness progressive heartbeat. It's topical, boasts of an extremely able cast it squanders mostly, and acts as a glossy coat sheening over the "real" story, pulsing but drowned, at its centre.
Newt Scamender (Eddie Redmayne) is a cryptozoologist with a case full of wonder who disembarks in Art Deco, New York circa 1926 in pursuit, it seems, of some black-market beastie. Why he would need to carry his entire menagerie with him on a quest to obtain one more bio-curio isn't explained. Neither is the constant declaration by the Big Apple's Ministry of Magic President Picquery (Carmen Ejogo, representing the only diversity in this cast if you want to go there) that the "hidden" magical world is on the verge of war with the "non-maj"/normals. This doesn't make sense. None of it does, and so you focus on the travails of normal schlub Jake (Dan Fogler), who works in a canning factory and dreams of one day selling his grandmother's pastries in a bakery. This introduces a thread wherein a bank manager gravely informs Jake that machines are much more efficient bakers. The straightest path through Fantastic Beasts is to view it as the triumph of old values in the face of escalating modernity. Jake meets mind-reading witch Queenie (Alison Sudol), who has never met a non-maj before (which is patently ridiculous because she lives in New York, but don't think about it too much) and so fetishizes him into a mate. There's a lovely dinner sequence where Queenie and her sister Tina (Katherine Waterston), a wand registrar at the Ministry, have Newt and Jake over and Jake and Queenie's romance begins to blossom.
Fantastic Beasts would have been fine, frothy stuff had it stayed there. But it doesn't. The next shortest route through the film is following the frankly-terrifying Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) as she harvests New York's orphanages for drones in her campaign against witchcraft. As the picture doesn't establish any real shenanigans the wizards can't Men in Black away instantly (it never spends any time, either, with instances in which the magical world is in danger of being discovered by the badly-outmatched Muggles), the only peril Mary Lou represents is the peril the movie tells us she represents. Still, with an actor like Morton in the role, she's a ferocious, horrific creation, cruelly manipulating her charges like a more malevolent, clearly pathological Fagin, mixing fundamentalist Christianity into a crusade designed to get her into government. (Yes, there's a cursory dip into politics, which, like sports, Rowling should stay away from.) Her chief underlings are pathetic, beaten Credence (Ezra Miller) and creepy young Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove). Through them, we learn of malevolent parasites called "Obscuris" who possess the bodies of magical children forced to repress their magic. They kill their hosts. It's revealed that in the course of his travels Newt has "exorcised" a little girl and captured her Obscuris--but not without killing the little girl. It's an Exorcist subplot that works pretty well as a general metaphor. Repression is one of the things wrong with the United States, the movie says. Fundamentalist religion has the potential to radicalize its adherents, it says. This leads to a city getting destroyed and later magically restored. Never mind about all the people killed.
There's also the subplot about a boss BigBad named Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). And one of course about how Jake and Newt swap cases and accidentally free a few Fantastic Beasts into the five boroughs. And one about whether or not Tina will redeem herself in her boss's eyes and regain her rank as Auror. And one where Newt has promised his Gryffin that he'll release him in Arizona. And one where he has a weird co-dependent relationship with a sapling. And one where Tina and Newt maybe love each other. And one where we get a glimpse at what American Ministry of Magic capital punishment looks like (it's pretty bad). And one where we hit an underworld house-elf speakeasy where a literal fugitive class does the Cotton Club mambo. And and and. Fantastic Beasts is an indecipherable, labyrinthine jumble that showcases exactly how much Rowling needs someone to edit her and how there probably aren't many people with that kind of courage and clout. It's not a thesis so much as the brainstorming session for a thesis. There are brilliant passages in here about repression and intolerance, acceptance and family, curiosity and hope. There are strong indictments of oppressive groupthink and its attendant ignorance and intolerance. There's an interesting ecological message, plus a critique of political nepotism and the rise of demagogues and normalization of amorality. There are a lot of great things to look at, and great things to think about, but if there's a curator, he's absent-minded and over-worked. (Then there's the fan service.) Fantastic Beasts is an ambitious mess worth a look. And I hope Steve Kloves decides he wants to write the next one.