Less Than Fantastic

If Hollywood has one problem that robs it of greatness more than any other, it is this: it thinks it knows what every story must contain, and it doesn’t adapt its approach from one project to another.

Amanda had wanted to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it came out, but Christmas was a busy time and, somehow, we never got round to it. The DVD has started to appear in second hand racks, so last night we watched it and, despite its abundance of charm, its lovely acting and its scattered glimpses of J K Rowling’s inventive genius, it was, overall, a bit of a routine Hollywood bore.

Its main failing is that it is trying to be two things; one original, charming and interesting, and the other a rehash of every blockbuster GCI action slog of the past ten years. The introductory story, about Newt Scamander arriving in New York on a mission to free a Thunderbird back into its native environment, losing various endearing creatures from his magical suitcase, and scrambling around the city in the company of a group of sidekicks to recover the beasts, is a lovely, lovely film. While this thread is played out, it is funny, original, visually and narratively coherent and fun. However, forced into this delightful framework is another story, about a baddy manipulating abused orphans to oppress muggles, and this element, for many reasons, is a crushing role-play of rote Hollywood tedium.

There is some nod to the established Harry Potter backstory to try to give the “battle” some context, but the characters are mainly new, apart from a reveal at the end which I’d seen coming from the first time my attention wandered, half way through the film. For this reason, it really needed to focus on a tight, controlled group. Either the bad guys had to be established early and with the same manic focus that Rowling put into Voldemort-as-legend in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, or they would never really be anything but a distraction from the good stuff. In lieu of her considered characterisation, there is an opening montage of newspaper headlines talking about Grindelwald, and then Colin Farrell has to try to build threat from ambiguous brooding. His patsy, Credence Barebone, (a classic Rowling name) has an even more thankless task: the actor, Ezra Miller, puts more than his share of acting workshop commitment into playing an abused, repressed, psychotic teenager, but his role clashes horribly with the main story and just underlines the fact that this sub-plot doesn’t belong in this film.

Of course, it’s there in order to justify a big, over-long, smash-the-city-up CGI borefest, that dominates the last hour of this meandering chore. The first time a wall collapses in gloriously imagined detail, down to individual brick and plaster mote, it is a marvellous effect. By the end, I was recognising the routine, and wondering which f-key they’d assigned it on the compositor.

So, to the good stuff. Eddy Redmaine is, to my eyes, a startlingly, almost beautifully ugly man, and he is one of the old Etonians, or Harovians, or whatever, who have made a nice living playing sexually ambivalent English posh tossers for Hollywood, but, despite his position of privilege, he can either act quite well or takes good direction. He filled the role just enough, and hammed just enough, to give his character life in Rowling’s Dickensian comic-grotesque mien, without reducing him to a turn. The greatest performance for me, though, is Dan Fogler, as Jacob Kowalski, the comic side kick (ie, Ron Weasley). The funniest sequence in the movie is the scene where Jacob, dressed in some sort of sporting armour, is chased across Central Park by an amorous erumpunt, a cross between a giant rhinoceros and a puffer fish. In this scene, CGI are used as they are meant to be used; to create a gloriously funny scenario of impossibility and follow it through in as natural a way as possible. Fogel’s comic gifts in this sequence are as effective as any slapstick great: his reaction shots rival Keaton, and his peril is enhanced by the social awkwardness of a big man trying to outrun unwelcome female attention.

Equally engaging is Queenie Goldstein, played by the amazing Alison Sudol, who is Jacob’s crush. She’s a proper Noo Yoik “doll” character: naive but wise, loving and instantly devoted to her unlikely crush. She seduces him with strudel, in another triumphant special effects sequence in which the acting shines, the characters endear and the CGI serves. Thinking back on it, I am struck again by what a tragedy it is that this film was bogged down by an unnecessary second plot.

Scamander’s love interest, and partner/rival, is Queenie’s sister, the disgraced auror, Tina, played by Katherine Waterston. I can’t put my finger on what she lacked in the film: she was interesting, an assured performer, and had a good part, but I think her character was just stretched too thin. It is Tina who is the link between the two plots-Newt really didn’t need to be involved in the Grindewald plot at all, and was squeezed into it as a sort of external consultant. Through Tina, we learn a little about the political tensions within the American wizarding world, and the pressures upon it, and her place within the American version of the Ministry of Magic, MACUSA, would have been quite justified without the violent subplot.

Finally, there are the creatures. They are a success and, had the war story been abandoned, could have carried another half hour of fun. The best is the niffler, a thieving, errant duck-billed raccoon, who has a gift for evading capture and a deadpan slapstick manner that is a joy to watch. He (she?) is probably the real star of the caper element of the movie, although the clingy (“He has attachment issues”) bowtruckle who lives in Newt’s pocket and is, at one point, traded to Ron Perlman’s gangster cameo, develops his own level of stardom. The thunderbird is beautiful, but its plot theme is somewhat squandered in the great “climax”, and both the demiguse and the occamy are, in different ways, gorgeous.

So, there is much to like in this film, but it is, in my view, bogged down by the need to create a ‘tense confrontation between the forces of darkness and the power of good’ (© virtually every American movie for the last decade). Why did they feel that they had to make an action movie? What would have been the harm in letting rip with the comic caper at the heart of this film, with lovely characters finding one another and falling in love, running around New York, establishing America’s wizarding credentials? You could still have had the introduction to MACUSA, you could even have fitted the Grindelwald plot in as a back story, paving the way for the longer and, perhaps, darker themes to develop in the subsequent film series, and have not dragged down all that was good about it. Instead, it is a long, tedious muddle in which the magic seems like an overlay on a standard work of American orthodoxy, and it feels a lot more than an Atlantic Ocean’s distance from Hogwarts.

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