Hurt Those Creatures
by ELEANOR MORROW
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
dir. David Yates
There is an ongoing trend, in the age of climate concern, to attribute human qualities to everything that surrounds us. This attitude extends to every creature in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling's not-so-humorous and not-so-exciting jaunt through the world that would eventually give birth to Harry Potter. There are oversized rhinoceroses desperate to mate, duck-billed platypuses who love nothing more than to steal, and mastodon-type creatures who only crave the touch of others. Would that any of the actual characters in this story had such manifestly human motivation!
It is almost shocking to see a Rowling film in which the actors are actually decent performers. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages a marvelous cast in comparison to the shit show that was the last gasp of Harry's quest to kill a man without a nose, that fellow who did something completely heinous: left him alive. In those last movies, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint looked completely checked out, not that they were really suited for their roles in the first place.
We desire a real love story, but instead of providing it, none of the characters in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ever give over to animal instincts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is the actor's usual sexless fop; despite being exposed to several beautiful women who invite him into their home, he can't escape quickly enough. His platonic friend Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) lives with her sister (Alison Sudol) and has no man in her life. "What makes Albus Dumbledore so fond of you?" someone asks Newt halfway through the film, but we never get the pleasure of finding out.
Despite being named after the most magnetic iteration of 20th century masculinity, the Muggle at the heart of these events, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), is a baker/veteran nearing 30 who works in a canning factory and has never had intercourse. During a particularly revealing interchange with Newt, Kowalski asks him whether he likes canned food. Newt just shakes his head.
Well, there is nothing wrong with canned food. Usually it tastes just fine, and it keeps forever. It's pretty good for the environment, but you have to understand that these are the types of people who only care about such things to the extent that they do not actually affect their lifestyle. Newt keeps all the endangered species he collects in his suitcase. In his head he is a progressive, but in actuality he is nothing more than a fancy zookeeper.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them inserts Newt in New York just after the war. In America, Muggles are colorfully referred to as non-Mags. You can tell that Rowling's trips to this country were relatively sheltered, because it is remarkable how completely whitewashed this New York is. Percival Shaw (Colin Farrell) is a magical official trying to track down a devastating cloud of smoke. If that idea excites you, you may suffer a coronary when the time travel yarn Harry Potter and the Cursed Child makes it to the screen.
The best way to do a prequel series would have been to create certain circumstances under which we could finally appreciate why the death of Mr. Potter was necessary – for example, it may have prevented Now You See Me 2 from ever being shown to audiences. If you have read the spoilers for Rowling's return to the character, you know that he has been basically put out to pasture in favor of his son, a spoiled brat with a famous father. There are no more orphans, just beneficiaries from Rowling's tremendous financial success.
I am probably too hard on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling at least does a nice job unraveling the basic mystery here, and Yates' command of the various special effects required by the series has come a long way. The art direction of the animals themselves is immensely pleasing, and Redmayne's use of animals to save the life of a Jewish woman he barely knows is a lot more enterprising than a mere spell. There is one moment where Newt emerges in the Arizona wild where we actually feel the beginnings of a great adventure. A few minutes later, Newt's platypus is robbing a jewelry store, and all we want is to go back.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing at This Recording here.