Last night, I hit the multi-plex with Lady_Lorelai and Queseramara to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them… and was underwhelmed. BE WARNED, this review contains SPOILERS.
Wiizzy Wiig made a crack on Facebook that I’d have the same baffling reaction to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as I did to The Man From U.N.C.L.E – and not-so-astonishingly, he wasn’t wrong.
Despite scoring rave reviews and earning a cool $600 million at the box office, I was immensely disappointed in the most recent movie in the Harry Potter franchise, for a lot of what I feel are valid reasons.
For me, the biggest flaw with Fantastic Beasts was the protagonist.
For a start, Newt Scamander is a wizard, and totally immersed in the wizarding world. That’s a fundamental structural mistake in the concept of the movie, since successful fantasy films always have an outsider as the protagonist. Just look at Star Wars, or Avatar, or even the original Harry Potter films themselves. They’re about taking a relatable character and allowing us to discover this wonderful new magical world through their eyes.
“Welcome to New York. Try not to FUCK EVERYTHING UP.”
Instead, in Newt, we got a wizard who was ‘apparating’ left, right and center and left non-hardcore Potter fans like myself absolutely baffled about half the stuff he was doing.
Dan Fogler, as rotund baker Jacob, helped fill in some of the void left by a relatable antagonist – but he was also playing the comedy relief and it was a little difficult to balance both roles in a single character. He was instantly lovable and funny, though – and easily the stand-out star of the movie.
When Dan Fogler – who has made his career out of playing obnoxious chubby assholes –
is the most likable character in your movie, you know you’re in trouble.
Joking aside, he’s triumphant in this.
Okay, my second beef with Newt Scamander as a protagonist…
…was he autistic?
At the end of the movie I quipped that it should have been called “Harry Potter and the Autistic Spectrum” because of the general awkwardness of Newt and co-star Tina. But I wasn’t saying that to be funny (using ‘autistic’ the same way people use the word ‘retarded.’) As somebody with a kid on the autistic spectrum, it was obvious that a lot of aspects of Newt’s personality went beyond mere cute-and-awkward Britishness to something… deeper.
His inability to make eye-contact. His mumbling voice. The way he cocked his head on one side incessantly. In fact, even his obsession with ‘fantastic beasts’ – and the fact that he could relate better to them than people – made it seem like my quip about him being ‘autistic’ was actually a deliberate part of his character.
Newt walks the tightrope between ‘cute and awkward’ and ‘just plain creepy’
In some ways that’s genius, and brilliant characterization… It’s nice to see somebody struggling with autism represented in a major movie role.
But it also makes it very difficult to relate to them. In fact I took a dislike to Newt pretty quickly when he first ‘apparated’ Jacob inside a bank – inadvertently framing him for robbery, and then doing nothing to help him or clear his name. He had a very autistic-like lack of empathy and it’s difficult to like a character when they blithely fuck up other people’s lives without so much as a thought about it.
In fact, that goes beyond Newt’s treatment of merely Jacob. The entire premise of the movie started out with: “Awkward British kid goes to New York for no good reason and fucks everybody’s day up.” Half of the plot of the movie arose from Newt being utterly irresponsible with his suitcase of ‘fantastic beasts’ and he had to recruit his little band of friends to clear up the mess he’d made.
“Fuck. Aren’t there supposed to be monsters in here?”
Perhaps another clever part of the script – one that I hadn’t even noticed until writing about it here – is how Newt’s experiences are kind of mirrored in those of the bad guy. The ‘big bad’ is a kid with similar social issues, and he’s struggling to contain a powerful and destructive force within himself.
Actually when you take a step back, you could always argue that the roles are reversed – the ‘bad guy’ kid is struggling to contain the evil within himself, which almost makes him a tortured hero. Newt, on the other hand, goes about blithely letting terrible beasts slither from his suitcase and doesn’t give a shit about how much chaos they cause. He’s actually a lot more ‘evil’ in terms of that.
Anyway. Newt was a horrible main character, and his love interest (if you can call her that) was almost as insufferable. In fact if you’d relegated those two to supporting roles and made Jacob and his love interest, Alison Sudol, the main characters you could have really made this a brilliant movie.
Come for the beasts. Stay because you’ve fallen in love with Alison Sudol.
But that’s just part of the problem.
Next you move onto the setting – 1920s New York. They could have set it during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ when America was experiencing a period of affluence. Things could have been bright, and exciting, and straight out of The Great Gatsby.
Instead, we got a drab, lifeless New York City inhabited by miserable people. The misery and drabness of the entire movie seemed a world away from the wonder and majesty of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley.
It takes talent to make New York seem drab and miserable.
Finally, the real ‘bad guy’ of the movie… Our ‘big bad’ is a tortured hero, as we explained, and the real villain is a handsome and brooding Colin Farrell…
….or is he?
Because – and a MAJOR SPOILER HERE – it turns out that the bad guy we’ve invested ourselves in for the entire fucking movie turns out to be somebody else entirely.
Colin Farrell is a really creepy, imposing bad guy… until he’s suddenly not.
And the fact that they’d sink to the level of doing that was pretty much the cherry on the rank sundae that is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
For hardcore Harry Potter fans the movie will probably be a blast. It’s filled with obscure Potter details and foreshadowing. For example, a mysterious picture in Newt’s possession hints at a connection to a sinister family that fans of the original movies will go gaga for.
But if you’re not up on your Deatheater family tree? It’s added meaningless data that has nothing to do with the movie you’re trying to wrap your head around, and just complicates things.
And that’s really my biggest beef with Fantastic Beasts… it’s complicated. The original Harry Potter movies were fantastic because they contained all the oodles of Potter-dom fans craved, but were also easy enough to get into that complete newbies could watch any movie in the series and enjoy it.
Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, was too far down the Harry Potter rabbit hole, and it made it very difficult to become absorbed by as a casual fan of the franchise.
In fact, I had more fun poking holes in the movie than actually watching it – but cynicism aside, it was still a spectacular cinematic event and for all my complaints, I don’t think I wasted my money buying a ticket to it.