‘Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Just when you thought the world of Harry Pot­ter couldn’t get any darker, along comes a bleak-as­soot spin-off that makes the ear­lier se­ries look like kids’ stuff. Bor­row­ing its ti­tle from one of the text­books Pot­ter stud­ied at Hog­warts School of Witchcraft and Wiz­ardry, “Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them” marks the first screen­play writ­ten by JK Rowl­ing her­self. Though the world-renown novelist had al­ways kept a tight rein on how those adapt­ing her Pot­ter sto­ries went about their task, this as­sign­ment gives her the un­prece­dented abil­ity to ad­dress her mas­sive global fan­base di­rectly, while cur­rent events have given her some­thing more sub­stan­tive to say.

The first in an am­bi­tious new pen­tap­tych, whole five in­stall­ments are all be­ing han­dled by David Yates (the di­rec­tor re­spon­si­ble for the four ul­tra-bleak block­busters that wrapped the Pot­ter fran­chise), “Fan­tas­tic Beasts” does dou­ble-duty as yet an­other imag­i­na­tion-tick­ling fan­tasy ad­ven­ture and a deeply trou­bled com­men­tary on tol­er­ance, fear, and big­otry in the world today. Fo­cus­ing on a scat­ter­brained ma­g­i­zo­ol­o­gist named Newt Sca­man­der (Ed­die Red­mayne), whose per­sonal cru­sade for the pro­tec­tion of mag­i­cal crea­tures will even­tu­ally lead him to pub­lish the afore­men­tioned guide, this of­ten heavy­handed po­lit­i­cal al­le­gory trades present-day Eng­land for Pro­hi­bi­tion-era New York, at a time when con­flicts be­tween magic folk and No-Majs (Amer­i­can for “Mug­gle”) are brew­ing-when the hu­mans aren’t fight­ing world wars among them­selves, that is.

It’s 1926, and Sca­man­der ar­rives at El­lis Is­land with a bot­tom­less suit­case full of il­le­gal “live­stock,” rang­ing from a mis­chievous Nif­fler (a naughty duck­billed mar­su­pial with a nose for trea­sure) to a gi­ant storm-caus­ing Thun­der­bird, whose keeper in­tends to re­lease back into the wild some­where far from peo­ple in Ari­zona. But the United States is no­to­ri­ously in­tol­er­ant when it comes to magic. (Re­mem­ber the Salem witch tri­als?) As a pre­cau­tion, all beasts have been out­lawed by MACUSA, the Yan­kee equiv­a­lent of the Min­istry of Magic, with stiff penal­ties for any who dis­obey.

Sca­man­der means well, but he’s a bit of a klutzand not nearly as care­ful as some­one charged with keep­ing a me­nagerie of po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous crea­tures re­ally ought to be. (If he were clev­erer, he prob­a­bly would have left be­hind those beasts ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing New York City, such as the atom-bomb-like Ob­scu­rus, be­fore trav­el­ing.) In his ab­sent-mind­ed­ness, how­ever, Sca­man­der accidentally swaps suit­cases with Ja­cob Kowal­ski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj fac­tory worker, who swiftly un­leashes half a dozen or so of the animals into the streets-animals that have a nasty habit of leap­ing di­rectly into the lenses of Philippe Rous­selot’s 3D cam­eras.

What fol­lows may as well be a high-end, pe­ri­odthemed up­grade to the pop­u­lar Poke­mon GO iPhone game, as Sca­man­der plays a freckle-faced, tweed­jack­eted ver­sion of Ash Ketchum, scram­bling to track down and re­cap­ture the es­caped crea­tures be­fore things get re­ally out of hand. Things first spin out of con­trol in an un­usu­ally com­pli­cated scene at the bank, where Rowl­ing and Yates spin so many lay­ers of sur­veil­lance-ex-au­ror Tina Gold­stein (Kather­ine Water­ston) spies on Sca­man­der, who is fol­low­ing Kowal­ski, who in turn is be­ing watched by a sus­pi­cious bank man­ager-that it starts to feel like try­ing to fol­low a piece of fruit as it passes through a blender.

Main­tain­ing Yates as di­rec­tor lends a con­sis­tency to the project, and yet, it would have been re­fresh­ing to get a com­pletely new take on Rowl­ing’s world with this se­ries, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing how murky and self­se­ri­ous they got in the fi­nal chap­ters. Still, Yates knows this world as well as any­one, and he ex­cels at find­ing vis­ual so­lu­tions for chal­leng­ing ideas (whether it’s how a witch might cook with­out an oven or a crea­ture who ei­ther grows or shrinks to the avail­able space). With all its ties to Harry Pot­ter ar­cana, “Fan­tas­tic Beasts” has clearly been de­signed for the most de­voted of Rowl­ing’s fans, and though it may prove con­fus­ing to new­com­ers, the faith­ful will ap­pre­ci­ate the fact the film never talks down to its au­di­ence.

Oddly, Rowl­ing’s script gives us prac­ti­cally no in­for­ma­tion about Sca­mader’s back­story at this point, whereas Gold­stein gets mul­ti­ple flash­backs over the course of the film. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause Rowl­ing, whose world-build­ing skills are ri­valed only by Ge­orge Lu­cas, ap­pears to be pri­mar­ily con­cerned with plot at this point, and Gold­stein’s mem­o­ries serve the story, while this two-plus-hour-plus pi­lot ev­i­dently doesn’t leaves much room for the sort of char­ac­ter de­tail we’d all like to get about Sca­man­der (whom Red­mayne plays with stooped shoul­ders and a slightly bow­legged walk, eas­ily win­ning sym­pa­thy for some­one whose every judg­ment seems to en­dan­ger the fate of his kind).

These are times of in­tense su­per­sti­tion for No-Majs and wiz­ards alike, and though the lat­ter are pro­gres­sive in their choice of leader, elect­ing a mixed-race fe­male pres­i­dent named Seraphina Pic­query (Car­men Ejogo), they’re largely in­tol­er­ant of No-Maj Amer­i­cans-with good rea­son, as it turns out: There’s a new sect of magic-fear­ing pro­test­ers on the rise, led by a zealot named Mary Lou Bare­bone (played with Pu­ri­tan­i­cal self-right­eous­ness by Samantha Mor­ton). Out­fit­ted like a char­ac­ter out of “The Cru­cible,” Bare­bone steals/adopts chil­dren from the magic fam­i­lies she ex­poses, but doesn’t keep nearly a close enough eye on her kids, leav­ing room for her deeply trou­bled “son” Cre­dence (Ezra Miller) to hold pri­vate meet­ings with a pow­er­ful-and power-hun­gry-au­ror, Per­ci­val Graves (Colin Far­rell).

Un­sus­pect­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion

Nat­u­rally, Graves is hid­ing one of those elab­o­rate du­plic­i­tous agen­das that Rowl­ing loves to in­vent, rais­ing the stakes for her pro­tag­o­nists-Sca­man­der, Kowal­ski, Gold­stein and Tina’s sis­ter, a mind-read­ing legili­mens named Quee­nie (Ali­son Su­dol, who looks the part of a pe­riod-ap­pro­pri­ate show­girl) from merely re­cap­tur­ing all of those fan­tas­tic beasts on the loose to pre­vent­ing Bare­bone and Graves from ex­pos­ing Amer­ica’s magic un­der­world to the un­sus­pect­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion. Those are enor­mous stakes bet­ter suited to some of Sca­man­der’s pow­er­ful friends back home (like Al­bus Dum­ble­dore, who may ap­pear in fu­ture in­stall­ments), and judg­ing by the des­per­ate look on Red­mayne’s face-rem­i­nis­cent of a waiter at­tempt­ing to bal­ance a wob­bly, six-foot stack of porce­lain dishes-he’s go­ing to need con­sid­er­able re­in­force­ments be­fore fac­ing off against the se­ries’ new ul­tra-vil­lain, a pow­er­ful dark wiz­ard named Gellert Grindel­wald, who shows up just long enough to dis­ap­pear.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, “Fan­tas­tic Beasts” am­pli­fies both the strengths and weak­nesses of Rowl­ing’s sto­ry­telling ap­proach, which un­folds in the episodic style of vin­tage se­ri­als-a cliff-hanger-ori­ented tac­tic that works well in nov­els, where read­ers might oth­er­wise be tempted to put the book down af­ter each chap­ter, but feels less el­e­gant on screen, since view­ers in­vari­ably com­mit to tak­ing in the en­tire story in one sit­ting. And yet, the writer has learned some­thing from the Pot­ter fran­chise, clearly go­ing out of her way to es­tab­lish a foun­da­tion that can be en­riched and ex­panded upon in fu­ture films. One can hardly for­get how pow­er­ful the rev­e­la­tion of Severus Snape’s back­story was, en­riched by hav­ing a mas­ter plan from the be­gin­ning, and here, we can sense the first glim­mers of char­ac­ter de­tails that will re­quire sev­eral in­stall­ments to take fo­cus.

Races and re­li­gions

And yet, rather than sim­ply promis­ing a greater scope to come, “Fan­tas­tic Beasts” takes place in a world far larger than any of the Pot­ter films, by virtue of both its height­ened bud­get and set­ting, tak­ing place in New York City right un­der the No-Majs’ noses. It may be cute to oblivi­ate wit­nesses one at a time, mem­ory-wip­ing by­standers the way the Men in Black did af­ter any alien sight­ing, to do so to a city at large smacks of cheat­ing. Though Rowl­ing takes the op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce a few tol­er­ance-ori­ented mes­sages, one can’t help but ques­tion the lim­its of the al­le­gory: In the real world, big­ots don’t have a real rea­son to hate mem­bers of other races and re­li­gions, whereas wiz­ards-how­ever much we love them-pose a very real threat to normal peo­ple (grisly Ob­scu­rus at­tacks re­sult in at least two deaths, and the de­struc­tion of large swaths of New York).

It’s the same log­i­cal flaw that op­er­ates in both the Avengers and X-Men fran­chises, and Rowl­ing doesn’t have much to add ... yet. But con­sid­er­ing that Quee­nie and Kowal­ski’s ro­man­tic sub­plot is by far the film’s most charm­ing de­tail, there are clues that Rowl­ing will have more to say on the sub­ject of half-blood­ssuch as Harry Pot­ter, born to mixed magic-andMug­gle par­ents-in the very near fu­ture. — Reuters

This im­age re­leased by Warner Bros shows Colin Far­rell, in a scene from, ‘Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them.’

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