REVIEW: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, an enchantment that’s treated like a commodity

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I came across a simple but compelling description of the difference between “art” and “entertainment” the other day. Mike Rugnetta from PBS Idea Channel argues that art is something that requires the audience to come to it (in varying degrees), whereas entertainment is something that tries to come to the audience. Art can be just for the artist or for many, whereas entertainment is always made with the many in mind.

Neither is better than the other, but seeing and appreciating the infinite gradient between the two is surprisingly useful, especially when it comes to Hollywood films, which have often stood in the confusing no-man’s-land between artistry and commerce.

For a recent example, there’s the latest film (and first cinematic extension) in the Harry Potter-verse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The original Potter source material started out as a recognizably artistic endeavour, where J.K. Rowling’s now-famous main character came “fully formed” into her mind. But the incredibly lucrative multimedia empire that followed (hundreds of millions of dollars in book sales, billions of dollars in box office, and even more in merchandise) has taken quite a few steps towards the entertainment side of the spectrum - and not necessarily to its detriment.

Redmayne as magizoologist Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein.
Redmayne as magizoologist Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein.

Yet, judging the latest installment on its merits as a film, Fantastic Beasts is easily the most commercial entry to date. The film is shrewd to a fault, most noticeably in its pacing, a quality that’s become a hallmark of tentpole films in the past five years. You can sense that so much money has been pumped into the work, and that so many corporate expectations ride on the work performing well, that it’s been edited almost to death. Drama ebbs and flows at the pace of a two-and-a-half minute trailer, as though a suit somewhere was worried that we’d forget which movie we were watching if we didn’t hear from each character and see at least one sequence of magic every few minutes.

The framing of the story, however, is one of the movie’s strongest points. It takes us back seventy years before the events of Harry Potter, to a different country in the wizarding world – more specifically, New York in the twenties. Non-practitioners of magic are known as No-Majs, and there’s a conflict brewing between them and the witches and wizards of America, brought on by the attacks of some sort of magical force that’s been knocking down buildings but leaving no trace of who’s controlling it.

Into this situation walks a magi-zoologist (expert on magical creatures) named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Scamander is carrying a Mary Poppins-like suitcase full of his extraordinary research subjects, including a giant rhino-like creature with a horn full of explosive energy and a platypus-like animal with a bottomless pouch and a lust for luxury items.

Scamander is thrust together with a former magical investigator (Katherine Waterston), her psychic sister (Alison Sudol) and an aspiring No-Maj baker (Dan Fogler). Together, they find themselves trying to outrun the political nightmare unfolding in the city, in an effort to track down some of Scamander’s escaped creatures and find out whether the threat against the No-Majs is another out-of-control beast for Scamander to tame, or something more sinister.

Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone and Colin Farrell as Graves.
Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone and Colin Farrell as Graves.

For any Potter fan who’s been left to grasp at any crumbs of new information released by Rowling on Pottermore over the past few years, Fantastic Beasts is like a shot of pure heroin to the arm. The film runs over with scene after scene of world-building details, including house-elf jazz club singers, goblin gangsters and of course, plenty of unusual animals. This also means loads of CGI, and almost too many shots of human actors staring at things they can’t actually see and trying their best to look amazed. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the practical wizardry that went into the scene from Philosopher’s Stone where Harry is first handed his wand.

Happily, the sense of wonder that’s so important to the series hasn’t disappeared. But the aforementioned problems with the structure of the movie trip it up in more ways than one. With Warner Bros. keen to lay the groundwork for the recently-announced four sequels, Fantastic Beasts rushes to introduce characters who will assumedly matter more later on: Jon Voight as a No-Maj newspaperman, Ronan Raftery as his wizard-hating son, and Zoë Kravitz as Scamander’s lost love. It also jumps between a few too many thematic allusions: the wizards vs. No-Maj conflict is alternately approached as a religious critique, a racial allegory, a Republicans-versus-Democrats reference and an environmental message.

I guess the idea is to get all this out of the way in the first film so that the later ones will be more fulfilling. But doesn’t that reflect poorly on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them if it’s being used as a delivery mechanism for narrative elements, which won’t be useful until we agree to spend the money on tickets to the sequels? It’s sort of like selling someone a few out-of-order chapters from a book and then asking for a pre-order for the full thing – “don’t worry, there’s no character development now, but just you wait!”

Perhaps the tone of this world of witchcraft is merely evolving with time. Our introduction to it was through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy discovering it for the first time, and as we aged with Harry, the world got darker with each installment. Now we find ourselves with a story set decades before he’s born, but it’s with adult characters and adult problems. Maybe there’s an inherent messiness in that kind of story, something that isn’t as easy to resolve as the classic coming-of-age, good-versus-evil arcs in the Potter stories.

My only lingering question is whether Fantastic Beasts is the kind of movie Harry himself would watch – surely a biopic of a famous historical wizard would be a hot ticket? Who knows, maybe witches and wizards have no need to spend their gold on movies – their world is spellbinding enough.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gets two and a half stars out of four.

Two and a Half Stars

What did you think of how the Potter world is expanding? Did it make you excited for what’s to come? Or do you miss the original crowd from Rowling’s books? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!