Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them–An Extensive Review

Steven Harper PiziksOver the weekend, Darwin, Aran, and I went to see FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM.  Our verdict:

Bleah.

The moive deals with a 1920s New York divided between the no-maj (muggle) world and the wizarding world.  The no-maj’s suspect there’s a magical world, and they’re gearing up to fight against it.  Meanwhile, the evil wizard Grindlewald has escaped custody and is expected to do Something Awful any minute.  Finally, Newt Scamander arrives in New York from England with a magic suitcase filled with magic creatures who keep escaping his custody.  If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, you’re right.

Is there good stuff?  Sure.  It’s fun to see the Harry Potter world in 1920s America.  The movie focuses on magical animals instead of spells and potions, a potentially fun new area to explore.  The effects are lovely.  Dan Fogler as Mr. Kowalski is a delight as the stand-in for the audience as he’s accidentally thrust into a wizardling world he can barely understand but gamely does his best to master.

But…

The movie has serious pacing problems.  Things take forever to get moving in the beginning. We  spend too much time dealing with unimportant issues, like the annoying niffler’s thieving and the preparation of food in a witch’s kitchen, and not enough time on actual plot points, like what the villain wants and how he intends to get it.  The latter is annoyingly muddled and confused.  Less time on special-effects creatures and more time on human character development would have been a better scripting choice.

Plot holes abounded.  There seem to be a gazillion witches and wizards in New York, and we see several times that they have the power to repair entire destroyed buildings and elevated train systems with a wand wave, but they can’t seem to get their acts together in time to stop a single magic creature.  The reason Tina (Katharine Waterson) was disgraced as an auror makes no sense.  (I won’t spoil it, but really–there was no reason for it to have happened.)  The American wizarding world apparently can have two people executed with no trial and no chance for the victims to say a word in their own defense, purely on the word of a single agent.  What on earth?

The characters are also dull and lifeless.  Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander as a hunched, stammering, bumbling idiot who spends most of his time staring at the floor.  At the end of the movie he says, “I’ve changed so much,” and my instant response was, “How?”  He hadn’t changed on tiny bit.  Tina, his female counterpart, is his exact match.  She’s shy and stammering and wimpy and totally unable to stand up for herself or raise her voice above a murmur, even when lives are at stake.  Apparently at one point, it’s supposed to be a major victory for her when Newt makes eye contact with her, and she gives a tiny hop of suppressed ecstasy.  Mysteriously, I didn’t feel any of it.

Maybe it’s an English thing.  JK Rowling herself wrote the script, and the Brits seem fascinated by the stammering, blithering, noodle-backed incompetent as a protagonist.  I’ve seen it in book after book, movie after movie, TV show after TV show.  It’s almost as if the English are afraid of confidence and competence.  I wish they would stop it.

(This paragraph has mild spoilers in it.)  Mr. Kowalski, our muggle baker, is the only character of any interest in the movie.  Rowling (the screenwriter) wanders dangerous close to the bumbling fat man stereotype, but she barely swerves aside in time.  He’s fun to watch, and we’re rooting for him, especially with his unexpected romance.  And at the end of the movie, every bit of his adventure is utterly negated. I was disgusted.

Aran pointed out that the main characters are all outcasts, an over-used trope that he hates.

My main thought as I watched the movie was, “Man, this screenplay needs editing.”  I rather suspect that Rowling wrote the thing and refused rewrites.  “I don’t need the grief,” Rowling says.  “Take it or leave it.”

And the producer took it.

The animals had their own problems.  Admittedly, I’ve never much liked Rowling’s mythical animals.  She rarely uses established fairy tale creatures and instead makes up her own entirely.  Rather than being refreshing, this comes across as hand-waving.  She can have literally anything she wants, anytime she wants, because–magic!  In this movie, it means Newt can whip a handy creature out of his case to meet any situation.  Animal ex machina.  Additionally, since I’ve never heard of nifflers or bowtruckles or squiddlemuffleticklebuddlepdiddlekumquats or whatevers, I don’t CARE about them.  In this movie, we’re supposed to care that these magical creatures are being exterminated, but we never see them be anything except destructive.  They maliciously break into bank vaults, smash windows, give human venomous bites, destroy zoos, and smash entire buildings, but we’re supposed to worry that THEY’RE being hurt?  With one exception, the animals are annoying or dangerous, and are in no way sympathetic.  They’re only pretty.

The movie was a disappointment for all three of us.  We were hoping for some cool historical urban fantasy and instead got a muddled storyline with unsympathetic characters.  Not recommended.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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5 Responses to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them–An Extensive Review

  1. Foxessa says:

    . . . . After seeing the trailers I will not be watching the latest Harry Potter franchise blockbuster, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

    Location is New York City. Time period is 1926. Pop quiz, kiddos: What is happening in New York City in 1926, hmmmmmmmmmmm?

    It’s the frackin’ JAZZ AGE! IT’S THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE! Wizards abound in the NYC of Rowling’s imagination, but — NOT African Americans.

    This primary cultural, social, economic and political phenomenon is seemingly not even hinted at — much less having actual characters who happen to be African American? Why does Rowling persist in getting the U.S. and the many peoples who inhabit this nation and its history so wrong? Or, perhaps, more to the point, why does she disappear them — or turn them as in her Wizarding school debacle — into something they are not?

    In Rowling’s imagination African Americans and Native Americans in the U.S. are infinitely MORE RARE reaching to IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND — than imaginary beasts. What does this say?

    This — THIS — NYC, 1926 — a frackin’ SLAM DUNK for including in principal roles diversity. But no. Such a frackin’ failure of imagination, by the author and by the team that made the film..

    Shame. This is why we lose every goddamned time.

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  3. Howard Brazee says:

    They could only kill without trial minor wizards (the protagonists), not the real evil antagonist. And they could undo everything in New York – the papers in New Jersey and London would still remember everything. Oh, and not only magicians remember everything, so did the baker (who had to be taken care of later). And what’s with the newspaper owner and his son? Looked like it would be a big part of the plot, but not really. Why is the Wizard establishment so rich with the wizards we see poor? Why is the hero so incompetent with his charges?

  4. I read the first three Potter books, as books (sure, I saw the movies. hasn’t everybody?) and while I admired the sheer verve of Rowling’s imagination… the storytelling wasn’t enough to hold me, and as you point out the handwavium effect became more and more obvious, and annoying. I had no plans to go to this new franchise offering because I think this particular vein has long since been tapped out, and after this review (thank you!) I feel rather vindicated – on the plot and story and character level, let alone all the other more systemic problems that are surfacing in Rowling’s world. I’d actually love to see her try and so something else, something other than Potter (and yes I know she wrote those pseudonymous mysteries – but her heart never seemed to be in that…) just to find out if she can literally escape her own Potterverse ghetto, as it were, and find her way in some OTHER story requiring the use of that fabulous imagination. But I am not holding my breath, at that. And the attitude engendered by the vast success of the Potter franchise – the “you take what I am giving and don’t you dare edit one word of it” – bodes ill for any future endeavours, actually. No writer is above a good editorial hand, and any writer who prides themselves on being so are generally shooting themselves in the foot before they even begin their story properly…