Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fantabulous Beasts and Where to Find Them

That's right! Fantabulous Beasts!  That will do wonders for my Search Engine Optimization.

I was working at Dreamscape Comics when the Phantom Menace was released in 1999, and in the run up to the release, everyone wanted to talk Star Wars. After the premiere, not so much.  There were one or two guys who half-heartedly defended it as not as bad as everyone was saying it was, but even they conceded the basic point that nobody would think twice about trashing it if it had been a generic sci-fi movie instead of the first Star Wars in decades.

The same thing is true for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but to a lesser extent. It’s not bad, but it’s not really very good, either. Take away the nostalgia the audience has for the Harry Potter franchise and you’re left with a thoroughly average movie that would probably not be able to stand on its own.

We open with spinning newspapers straight out of Batman informing us that future Magical Hitler Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose after his latest tomfoolery.  We then transition to Newt Scamander arriving in New York.

Eddie Redmayne is appealing as Newt Scamander.  He’s got a suitcase full of monsters, and one of them, some kind of greedy platypus (I know it’s called a Niffler, nerds. Put down your tweets) escapes into a bank. While trying to capture it, Scamander briefly crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a man there to get a loan in order to open a bakery. Hijinks ensue! The Niffler makes its way into the vault and Newt and Kowalski are discovered there by the bank manager, who triggers the alarm. Scamander paralyzes the manager, and escapes with Kowalski.

I think the Harry Potter series peaked with Prisoner of Azkaban, and slowly declined from there, but I’m not going to argue that Rowling is anything other than a brilliant author. However, she is not a good screenwriter, because this is a very sloppy script. The manager is never Obliviated onscreen, and later events (such as the fact that twenty-four hours later, MACUSA had no idea that Scamander was in New York) imply that he never had his memory wiped, as that’s the kind of thing that would have been uncovered in the course of the investigation.  The manager knows who Kowalski is, and sees him apparently robbing the bank. You’d think that would be the kind of thing where he’d want to follow up on it?

Kowalski slips away before Newt can wipe his memory, and he and Newt accidentally swap briefcases, shocking those members of the audience who have never seen a sitcom. Before Newt can catch him, he is apprehended by Sam Waterston’s daughter, disgraced former Auror Tina Goldstein. (I’m surprised that magical law enforcement officers are still called Aurors in America, seeing as they have different names for almost everything else over here.)

She tries to bring him in the to the President of the Magical Congress, who holds important staff meetings in grungy back rooms, but is dismissed. Meanwhile, Kowalski opens Newt’s suitcase, but is attacked by one of the critters inside, allowing a bunch of them to escape. Goldstein and Newt find Kowalski and take him back to Goldstein’s apartment, where they meet her sister, Queenie.

Holy crap, Queenie is the best part of this movie! I just want a good parts version, which will be nothing but scenes of Queenie and Kowalski driving around in his Dodge Charger being cute.

Meanwhile, a newspaper magnate’s senator son is killed in full view of hundreds of credible witnesses by some obviously magical force.  Okay, then.  Maybe I missed some throwaway line about mass Obliviations in a later scene, but unless MACUSA got right on top of that immediately, it kind of looks like an irreparable breach of the Masquerade right there. (And seeing how the publisher recognizes the beast that killed his son in a different scene that takes place at least twenty-four hours later, this mass Obliviation doesn’t seem to have happened.)

Newt and Kowalski sneak out of the Goldstein’s apartment in order to attempt to recapture the escaped creatures.  There is a cute set piece where they break into a jewelry store because they see the Niffler grabbing stuff inside. It’s effectively the same scene as the Niffler stealing stuff from the bank, but better. But here’s the thing. We don’t need both of those scenes.  The movie has entirely too many set pieces like this that do nothing to drive the plot forward.

That said, I did like it, and I found it legitimately funny when Kowalski, bedecked in a jeweled tiara that fell on his head when they captured the Niffler, points down the street and tells the responding officers “He went that way.”

The officers are distracted by the arrival of a lion, which escaped when one of Newt’s critters broke into a nearby zoo in order to find a mate. Newt takes advantage of this to disapparate away with Kowalski. So, what happens next here? Either the lion mauls somebody or the cops shoot it. That’s kind of a shitty outcome for somebody.

More wacky slapstick farce in the zoo. Kowalski spills magical critter musk on himself and the critter wants to mate with him! Newt tries to save him, but a money steals his wand! (He can’t  seem to perform any wandless magic to get it back, but as he’s canonically a Hufflepuff I’m willing to let it slide.)

Kowalski and Newt get trapped in the case by Tina after they catch the critter and she takes them to her old job. Her boss, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) is presiding over  a meeting that seems to include every one of the most powerful wizards in the world and they don’t even have a guard at the door. Tina walks right on it.

Ejogo looks like she’s cosplaying as a Young Eartha Kitt and the role comes directly out of the Useless Authority Figure from Harry Potter central casting.  She demands to know why Tina didn’t tell them about Newt and his creatures earlier, and Tina doesn’t even acknowledge that’s what she was trying to tell them earlier. It’s a bit baffling that she doesn’t even make the effort.

President Picquery turns them over the moustache-twirling Percival Graves. Colin Farrell plays him, and tend not to enjoy his work, but he gives a really entertaining performance in the film. Graves takes them to interrogation room, name drops Dumbledorf for the fans in the audience and then sends Tina and Newt off for execution in an acid bath.

Queenie has a flash of insight and she mounts a rescue operation where saves Kowalski, because Queenie is the best.  Newt breaks out of his restraints because nobody bothered to empty his pockets and our nebbishy Hufflepuff beats up a bunch of Aurors and rescues Tina. The two groups meet up in a garage and manage to defeat BOTH pairs of Aurors who try to stop them, in what was a remarkably easy escape. The MACUSA seems to have a serious manpower shortage. That hiring freeze must have hit them pretty hard.

Our heroes head to a speakeasy run by Ron-Pearlman-as-a-goblin. He’s basically playing Hannibal Chau from Pacific Rim, but not quite as understated.  It’s another interesting set piece, but it’s as unnecessary as many others. It seems like Rowling just wants to fit as many 1920s tropes as possible without worrying how the scenes come together to make a narrative.  Pearlman double-crosses them and the MACUSA Aurors apparate in, but Newt and company elude them by…crawling under the tables? That can’t be right.

I think it’s a mistake to graft what is for all intents and purposes a Harry Potter plot to a film with adults in the lead.  In Harry Potter, the kids were the heroes because they had information the adults didn’t and but the adults wouldn't act on it because they didn't take the kids seriously, so they had to save the day themselves. Rowling has preserved the same structure by making everyone but the protagonists thunderingly stupid and alarmingly incompetent. I think that’s a cheat.

There has been a secondary plot running throughout the movie. Calling it a B Plot is almost being too charitable, because it has almost nothing to with the main story. It’s almost like a second movie running parallel to the first. Only at the end do they intersect, and even then it’s almost incidental.

Samantha Morton plays Mary Lou Barebone, who runs an orphanage and an anti-magic activist group. The thing that killed the senator was a called an Obscurus, and such a creature is created when a young witch or wizard suppresses his or her magical powers. Is the Obscurus coming from the obvious red herring or Ezra Miller? (Spoiler, it's Ezra Miller)

So we have the big Captain Obvious reveal, Ezra transforms into the Obscurus and flees into the subway tunnels, pursued by Newt, Tina and Graves. They fight, but Tina succeeds in talking him down. Ezra starts transforming back into a human, whereupon President Picquery arrives with a couple dozen Aurors and they execute him right there.

Here's the most baffling part of the movie. Graves has it made. Tina and Newt were sentenced to death under apparently legitimate authority. As far as anyone knows, they're escaped fugitives. There is physical evidence, in the form of the Obscurus Newt had in his briefcase which supports Graves' narrative. If Graves had kept his mouth shut, no, if Graves has done anything short of OFFERING AN UNPROMPTED CONFESSION, it would have been "Well, back to the acid pits with you two."
I would have gotten away with it, if not for you meddling me!

Seriously, dude. Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, etc.

He rants, confesses and starts blasting dudes, but he's overpowered by a Hufflepuff, and it turns out that he's really a fat, blond Johnny Depp!

The President is like "Well, I guess we're boned. No way we're covering this up", but Newt is like "Not so, Madame President! I will seed the clouds with rohypnol, and those dumb muggles will forget everything!"

Ugh, listen. The Obliviate charm is problematic. Narratively, it's easy solution and Rowling overuses it. Morally, rewriting someone else's memories for your benefit is nothing short of abhorrent, but it's treated as a matter of course by almost everyone in the series. The hero's solution to the movie's final dilemma is to dose everyone in New York with a date rape drug and I find that...troubling.

The President tells our heroes that Kowalski is going to have to be brain-wiped too, but she lets them do it themselves. I figured this was going to be a "Yeah, we totally erased his memory" type situation, but everyone, including Kowalski feels like going ahead with it. Alright then. (Spoiler/Not Spoiler: He gets his memories back almost immediately. The last episode of Gravity Falls made us wait longer.)

It wasn't all bad.  It had plenty of Easter Eggs. The score sounded like John Williams composed it. I thought he had until I looked it up. It incorporates elements of the score from the original movies, and it's used to good effect throughout the film. The Harry Potter movies have a distinctive visual aesthetic and they draw on that to create a look that's both familiar and new. The individual set pieces are all neatly composed, but they lacked the connective tissue that would have tied them together into something meaningful. I watched Zootopia again in the time between when I watched Fantastic Beasts and when I completed the review, and I couldn't help but think how tightly written that movie was. The opening sequence is not only entertaining, but it gives us exposition AND it foreshadows the conclusion. We needed that kind of rigor here. There are too many scenes that do nothing to advance the plot.

Fantastic Beasts is not a bad movie. It’s fine if you don’t think too much about it. The thing is, it could have been so much better, but they didn’t even bother.

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