Friday, November 18, 2016

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” – So close.

The Harry Potter universe is like having a dog. At first, it’s very exciting. For the first few months, you have a lot of fun. You go to sleep happy and look forward to the next day. Everything is fresh. Eventually though, the novelty wears off, but if you’re lucky you have a well-behaved dog that doesn’t crap behind the couch when you’re not looking. You have a pleasant relationship that falls into a routine for a few years, with only the normal hiccups along the way. When the end starts to draw near, the poor dog is slowly and aimlessly wandering around the house and you wonder if it’s time to take the dog to the proverbial farm. When it’s over, you miss your friend, but you’re in no hurry to get another dog. A few years later, a friend offers you a puppy from their litter and you accept because you remember how much you liked your previous dog. Is that a tortured metaphor? Yes it is. But it’s also apt. It’s been five years since the last Harry Potter movie and you definitely wouldn’t mind a new movie set in the same universe as long as it’s not actually another Harry Potter movie and as long as it doesn’t crap behind your couch.

I reread my reviews of the last three Harry Potter movies and the final one is far funnier now. I sarcastically lamented that Harry Potter was over forever and not only do we have a new movie (albeit one that has nothing to do with Potter), but multiple additional stories have been written, including a play. Like I said, that review was sarcastic – I didn’t actually want more Potterverse, especially if J.K. Rowling was doing the writing – so I guess I got what I deserved. Not that I didn’t expect it to happen. Rowling is a one-hit wonder and a fame-junky; of course she wasn’t going to stop. And that’s not even a bad thing, but she insisted that book seven would be the end. Plenty of authors live in their singular literary worlds for decades (hello George R. R. Martin), but they usually don’t keep telling us how they are done with it while continue to write more of it. But, like I said, we remember the movies were at least fun until the last couple, so getting a new one is probably okay after five years. And this one turned out to be pretty okay, but not without its flaws.

The good guys.

(I never read the book this movie was based on, so I don’t know if anything in the movie can be considered a SPOILER. But here’s your SPOILER warning anyway.)

Fantastic Beasts is set decades before Harry Potter, but not so many decades that there aren’t still connections to Potter. If you think Rowling can go an entire story without mentioning Dumbledore, as is done in this film, you haven’t been paying attention (and can someone please explain to me why Rowling is obsessed with Dumbledore’s sexual preference?). Anyway, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has travelled from London to New York in search of someone who can help him breed a particular rare and magical beast. Newt carries with him a suitcase containing what can only be described as a portal to his personal zoo. For whatever reason, this suitcase has some serious security flaws in that creatures can escape when it is open. But only sometimes. It doesn’t make sense, but you just have to accept it.

While chasing around one of his escaped critters, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror, arrests Newt for violating a magical law. She takes him to the unimaginatively named MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) for processing, but they ignore the both of them and send them on their way. However, one auror, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) takes an interest in Newt’s case and demands to see inside it. When they open it, it’s filled with pastries and Newt realizes that a non-magical person (also unimaginatively referred to as no-maj’s), Jacob (Dan Fogler), accidentally switched cases with him. Much of the movie is then spent with Newt, Jacob, and Tina trying to round up the rest of Newt’s creatures. This is the fun part of the movie and enjoyable part of the movie. As it turns out, the beasts really don’t have anything to do with the actual plot of this movie, which is pretty much par for the course with Rowling’s stuff.

We're looking for some lost animals. Dangerous? No - they're fine.

Backing up all the way to the beginning, the movie starts by showing us newspaper articles of a dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald running amok. This occurs some indeterminate amount of time prior to the actual events of this movie, but Grindelwald basically vanishes without a trace. Cut to the events of this film and if you can’t guess who Grindelwald is within the first five minutes of the film, then you’ve never seen a movie in your life. If that’s true, welcome – movies are fun.

Graves has been tasked with tracking down a mysterious force that is rampaging through the city. Crossing paths with Newt provides a convenient excuse to lay the blame on Newt and his creatures while he continues his search for the real culprit. Now, just in case you missed the previous SPOILER ALERT, you might want to avert your eyes – Graves is up to no good. This is almost comically obvious from the moment you see his slicked-backed black hair, aka the Slytherin look, to his manipulation of Credence (Ezra Miller), a young man he only meets with in alleys as he tries to find the MacGuffin. I mean, as he tries to find the rampaging force that will allow him to start a war between muggles (I refuse to use the other term) and wizards. Yes, he is most definitely a precursor to Voldemort, but without the big snake. Graves also appears to be quite powerful, so one wonders why he needs the force to start a war when he could just…start a war without it.

If I was a good guy, would we be meeting in an alley?

So, if you’re counting, this movie has two separate plots that only intersect at the end and a third subplot that I didn’t even bother wasting your time with (Credence’s mom beats him and is on a literal witch hunt to expose the wizarding world). Even knowing all that, the movie is still quite entertaining. Until the end, that is.

Two things happen at the end of the film that, in my opinion, were awful artistic choices and were really the only two things I didn't like about this movie. The first involves Jacob and the President of MACUSA insisting that his memory must be wiped, no exceptions. Considering a theme of this movie is discrimination between the wizards and muggles, accepting a muggle into the wizarding community seems like a good first step towards resolving that issue. Unfortunately, it’s easier to Brexit the decision. I mean Trump the decision. I mean put your head in the sand and continue discriminating for no reason other than bias. The worst part of this choice is that Jacob is the most interesting and endearing character in the entire movie and the movie immediately decides to go back on the decision by walking Tina’s sister into Jacob’s bakery (the two were basically in love by the end of the ordeal).

The second is the inclusion of Johnny Depp. I’m not annoyed that Johnny Depp got to be in this film, it’s how he was inserted. (Again, SPOILER) When Graves is finally captured, his face changes into Grindelwald’s and it’s Johnny Depp. Why? WHY? And how shitty does Colin Farrell feel about this move? They are almost literally telling Farrell that he is an inferior version of Depp. Just, ouch.

I realize that this review sounds pretty negative, but I enjoyed the vast majority of this movie, even with the weak plot lines. The characters were all very good and the actors really brought them to life. Fogler and Waterston were especially fun to watch and I hope we get to see more of them in future movies. Heck, even in a future sequel to this movie (which you know is coming) because we just got this new puppy. Just keep it out from behind the couch.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back. The end is just inexcusable.

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