Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fantanstic Beasts: Some Hits, Some Misses, All Fun

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell

Again, I’ve emerged from my semester-long hibernation to write another post. It’s difficult for me to read so many papers and assignments throughout the semester while trying to keep up with this blog, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write at         least one post per month, whether that’s a post about a new movie or one of my old favorites.

Now that the housecleaning is out of the way, let’s talk about the newest silver-screen debut from J.K. Rowling: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. As somebody who really liked the Harry Potter movies, I was split on watching this one: part of me felt like this was a stab for money, but part of me was still excited at an expansion of the universe. Everything said and done, I would recommend this movie. It’s a fun, popcorn-chomper of a movie, and it hints at some deeper elements of American society, but there are still a few problems.

Our story begins as Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives by boat to New York City and goes through customs with an enchanted suitcase full of fantastic beasts. After one of his crazy critters gets loose in a bank, Scamander’s suitcase gets mixed up another one carried by a nomaj—a person who doesn’t know magic—named Kowalski (Fogler). Scamander and Kowalski attempt to recapture the creatures that escaped from the magical suitcase, but they are quickly apprehended by an American magic-police officer, Tina (Waterston). A mysterious beast is threatening the city, however, and Graves (Farrell), the head of the magic-police, blames Newt for the invasive species that’s terrorizing New Yorkers. Scamander, Kowalski, and Tina team up with Tina’s sister, Queenie (Sudol) to find the menacing monster before it’s too late.

I had a lot of fun with this movie, and that’s partly because of the expanding Harry Potter universe. There didn’t seem to be much of an expansion in the normal Harry Potter sense, but it took the series in an interesting direction. In the proper Harry Potter movies, there’s a focus on using spells, dueling with wands, and brewing potions—and that makes sense for those movies, considering we’re following our main characters throughout their time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That being said, Fantastic Beasts moves away from spells and wizard duels and toward Hagrid’s realm of care for magical creatures. I found the designs for the various creatures very interesting, and the animation was all well done. There wasn’t any place containing beasts where I felt like I was taken out of the movie. It made me smile to see an even larger universe.

Though this movie focused less on wand-work and more on care of magical creatures, I felt underwhelmed with the wand choreography in the movie. What I mean by “wand choreography” is the natural look of an actor using a wand in the context of a scene. In the Harry Potter books, we learn that “the wand chooses the wizard,” but the wand almost becomes an extension of the self (something, something, phallus reference). If the wand is an extension of the self, it becomes an extension of the user’s personality. Take Sirius Black in The Order of the Phoenix: the climactic battle shows him waving his wand with light-hearted flourishes and little twists, like he’s expressing his fun-loving personality through his wand-dueling. In a stark contrast, Newt Scamander seems like more of an academic, not a fighter, and he’s kind of an awkward, shy person—he doesn’t have those aggrandizing flourishes with his wand. My big issue here is Colin Farrell: his portrayal of Graves doesn’t seem natural with his wand. We would expect Graves, as a captain of the aurors, to be a tremendous fighter with a list of really good wand-dueling moves, right? Wrong. Farrell swings his wand around almost like he’s trying to lasso cattle, and it took me out of an important scene.

I did find it quite interesting that Fantastic Beasts explores magic society in America—and even brings in some contemporary issues in American culture. The movie brings up a salient point about America’s divisiveness: an American magic-user normally doesn’t associate with a nomaj person, which creates a huge rift between two parts of American society. This felt incredibly important that the characters noted this division, especially in today’s culture. Another example of Fantastic Beasts’ exploration of American culture comes when a group of aurors—which are more or less magical police officers—destroy a dark wizard, though Newt is speaking to and calming down the wizard. Though Newt’s conversation with the dark wizard seems to be leading them in a direction where fatal violence seemed unnecessary to me, the aurors still fire away and kill the dark wizard. I watched this movie with my fiancée, and she was of the belief that the dark wizard was too powerful and unstable to leave alive; I can see her point of view, but the point remains the same here that the magical police might have been a little too trigger-happy (wand-happy?) in this instance. These little moments seemed to point to larger issues in American society that aren’t simply relegated to the magical community, however, and that helped me immerse myself in the story even more.

 The music in Fantastic Beasts was an issue for me. After having eight films’ worth of music—music that is iconic and almost universally known in American culture, I felt very disappointed that there wasn’t a new, interesting diddy to go along with this new series. I discussed this with my fiancée afterward, and I compared it to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies: The Lord of the Rings had beautiful soundtracks thanks to Howard Shore, and he also scored The Hobbit series. While the Hobbit movies do share musical similarities with The Lord of the Rings’ soundtracks, the Hobbit movies still had their own identifiable music—music that says These movies all belong to the same universe, but they’re separate stories. Fantastic Beasts didn’t use much of that iconic music that we’ve grown to love with Harry Potter, and I honestly don’t remember much of it even now, having left the theater only a couple of hours ago.

In the end, Fantastic Beasts was a fun movie, and I’d definitely like to see it again someday. The creatures are fun and interesting, and they’re definitely the spotlight of this movie, and the hinting at American society, as oblique as some of those hints are, was a nice touch. I’m always going to be disappointed with the wand-duels in this movie, however. My love of movie soundtracks wasn’t tickled with this new iteration of the Potter universe, though, and that was also really disappointing. Overall, though, I’d recommend this one.

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