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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

November 22, 2016

Fantastic Beasts Finds Success

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Just as academics need to reveal any conflicts of interest in their studies, so do I feel the need to admit a bias right off the bat here: I love Harry Potter. I read the series growing up; I waited until midnight for the sixth and seventh book releases; and I have a themed hat, scarf, bathrobe and wallet.  J.K. Rowling has left a huge imprint on my life, and when I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007, I felt an emptiness. That was it. No more visiting the Wizarding World with any new stories.

But 2016 has been nothing if not full of surprises.

This year, we’ve gotten two new ventures into the Potterverse. The first, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, didn’t quite deliver. Rowling’s vision got diluted and filtered through Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. But now we have Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. David Yates has returned as director; he’s a seasoned veteran of the Harry Potter films, having directed the last four. Meanwhile, Rowling herself has set her quill to the task of screenwriting for the first time. Together, these two have delivered a great film that, despite some flaws, gives us the return to the Wizarding World we’ve all been waiting for.

For those not in the know, the title comes from a textbook that exists in the Potterverse, which Harry has to study from. Rowling wrote it out in 2001 as a fictional encyclopedia of magical creatures, the proceeds of which went to charity. Of course, an encyclopedic movie would hardly be thrilling. Instead, we get a wholly original plot. The movie opens with newspaper headlines: Gellert Grindelwald, an evil wizard, is wreaking terror across Europe in an attempt to expose wizards and thus provoke war. Meanwhile, our main protagonist, Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, arrives in 1920s New York City. He carries with him a suitcase that contains a wide variety of magical beasts, and after a wild run-in with both non-wizards (Muggles, or No-Maj’s in the United States) and the local wizard authorities, they are released.  It’s therefore a race against time to recapture all the beasts and identify a rogue creature that’s causing destruction and mayhem.

As I said before, J.K. Rowling penned both the plot and the dialogue for the movie. Her experience as a novelist comes through as a double-edged sword. Screenwriting is different than novel-writing; in the Harry Potter books, the author is free to wander around and get side-tracked.  On the big screen, where time is more limited, greater focus is required.  Fantastic Beasts does like to wander quite a bit. It always shows us something interesting, but it does feel like the story bit off more than it could develop. That said though, Rowling’s strengths as a writer clearly shines through. The characters are all really great, and I’ll talk more about them as I get to the actors.  Wit pervades the dialogue, as evidenced by the loads of laughter coming from the Friday night audience. The film also ventures into darker and more emotional territory, and the mood changes accordingly. Most importantly, however, it feels like a Harry Potter story. The biggest problem with Cursed Child was that it felt more like a fanfiction than a natural extension of the series. It focused on time travel, while the original books were all mysteries. An excellent video titled “What Went Wrong With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?” explains this point very well. Fantastic Beasts is a mystery: where are the beasts, and what is the mysterious rogue creature flying around?  J.K. Rowling successfully meshes existing concepts with new ideas; an important point I should make here is that it should be understandable without prior exposure to Harry Potter. Any negative aspects about the writing can be chalked up to Rowling simply being new to screenwriting. As she continues, I believe she’ll get better and better.

Now, there was one aspect of the movie that seriously detracted from the quality. I found some of the editing choices unusual. Sometimes it moves too quickly, like one scene where Goldstein and Scamander walk by each other before she grabs his arm and disappears with him. As they move towards each other, the camera cuts from facing her to facing him. Then back again. Then back again. It ends up moving so fast that it creates a serious distraction from what should have been a tense moment. There’s even a jump-cut that got in there. I don’t know if it was merely a mistake, or an avant-garde attempt, but either way, the editing did have some serious issues, and if it had been cut together more smoothly, I feel the film would have been better.

However, plenty of positive aspects balance it out. The actors all did a great job playing their characters. Redmayne as Newt Scamander was a brilliant choice, bringing a bubbly and cheerful personality to a previously faceless character. Dan Fogler plays Kowalski, a No-Maj who gets swept up in the hijinks. Similar to how Harry Potter’s introduction to the Wizarding World enabled Rowling to partake in worldbuilding easily and naturally, Kowalski’s curiosity about magic allows the audience to uncover more about how the American wizarding society works. Katherine Waterston plays Porpentina Goldstein, a disgraced ex-Auror (that’s wizarding law enforcement), and Alison Sudol plays her younger sister, Queenie.  Ezra Miller also delivers a great performance, playing a boy named Credence whose mother runs the Second Salemers, an anti-magic group that seeks to brainwash children. The mother is played by Samantha Morton, who delivers a chillingly creepy performance. Altogether, the actors complement Rowling’s ability to create fun characters and bring them all to life.

I’ve been looking forward to this movie since it was announced in 2013.  Now that it’s here, I’m happy to say I’m not disappointed. Sure there are some rough spots, but it was still a fun experience that successfully started off a new franchise.  As we saw earlier this year with Batman v. Superman, filmmakers can grow lax with the promise of later titles and end up opening on the wrong foot. With four more films following it, Fantastic Beasts manages to lay a solid groundwork for a series that I’m looking forward to with renewed vigor. It could have been better, but it’s still fundamentally a good film and I’m eager to see what follows. The Wizarding World is back, baby!

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu. 

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