Monday, November 21, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I have a theory about J.K. Rowling's stories: They have a very low opinion of adulthood. This theory is based on reading almost everything she's written (I couldn't get through The Casual Vacancy) and what interests the texts—the struggle of good people, or people who would like to be good, against a bleak world or prophesied doom—is not necessarily what interests me. I find the constant reminder of what an awful place the world is and how it's full of assholes is just not why I spend the money it costs to see a movie. I got Twitter for that.

However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them appeared to be the opportunity for Rowling to return to a balance of the wonder of her worlds with these darker themes she likes to dive into in her adult fiction. Also it's the first movie, so I thought she'd have to build to the really awful stuff and it probably wouldn't get appalling until the second movie.

I did get part of what I wanted from this film. Newt Scamander is one of the kindest male protagonists in a fantasy movie this year. Newt—arguably on the spectrum—relates much easier to the magical creatures of the world than the magical people. Which I can't really blame him for, because the Wizarding world seems to be full of assholes. (Except for maybe three people and one of them is Newt.)

He is not your typical famous wizard hero character. He is smart, compassionate, and introverted. Traits that are usually associated with Rowling's female characters. He doesn't fit the mould, and as a result is treated like an outcast or a failure. At one point there's an excitement to see him until everyone realizes he's the OTHER Scamander—the famous war hero's little brother. That probably explains why Newt, who is incredibly accomplished, isn't constantly saying how great he is.

That was refreshing. Tina, the main female protagonist, is the auror, the one with overt career-minded ambition, and the one who is socially adept. The one who aims high, and keeps loudly pushing to achieve more.

So there is some awareness, at the script level of some gender things and a little play with the conventional idea of who is a heroic figure. That's successful.

Honestly, everything Newt-and-his-magical-creatures-centric about this film works. From his nervously going through customs to haphazardly chasing escaped creatures through NYC landmarks. Right to the climatic part of the film and how he handles the big danger. The way Jacob is drawn into the wizard world, how the group expands to include Tina and her sister Queenie, and what those characters accomplish together is delightful.

Jacob is a great viewpoint character, who rolls with the discovery of the wizarding world in the best way—both the horror and the wonder of it all—like a good companion would. The benefit of not making the main hero also the New To The World character is that Fantastic Beasts has an expert who is not one through extraordinarily circumstances. That Newt achieved his Magizoology knowledge through hard work is believable. Instead of a Chosen One, he is a Competent One.

While Newt has a disinterest in the human world around him, it's not because of arrogance. He just doesn't like people. (And again—Hogwarts is full of assholes, so who can blame him.) This also, by the end of the film, resolves itself and he begins taking an interest in the world of people. Which is a lovely character arc to give someone. Usually this falls down due to the character who is learning to take an interest in the people around them being so unlikeable. Newt manages to be self-absorbed without it being off-putting, and the great lengths the movie goes to show the way he cares for magical creatures and their world is what saves it from being another case of but why would anyone want to hang out with this guy?

Well that's great, the casting is jarring in its lack of realistic diversity—this may not be the whitest movie this year but it's definitely up there—but it's made worse by band-aid attempts to crowbar in visible minorities. The roles that were left to fill are minor/extra characters who oppose or act in antagonistic ways to Newt. So most of the wizards we're meant to see as wrong—or eventually ok people because they realize that they were wrong about Newt—are marginalized people.

Also the only canonically gay character who appears on screen? Is a dark wizard. So non-hetro people are evil manipulators, and all visible minorities are bad people or can only be good people if they acknowledge Newt—who's compassionate, but still the whitest guy—knows best. It's a giant problem. (Arguably there's a reading of Newt being asexual, but I can't find any official confirmation of that or of him being intended to code as autistic.)

Aside from the diversity issues, the actual structure and plotting of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a mess. There is an unsuccessful attempt to manage two story lines—one a wondrous adventure tale of an awkward wizard and his beloved magical Pokemon as he learns to make people-friends, too, and the other a horror movie starring Ezra Miller about what happens when religious cults abuse closeted wizards. Could these have interwoven and balanced each other out? Sure—but they don't.

The story is also hindered by the inclusion of an extraneous newspaper baron, his senator son, and his other son who's supposed to be important for some reason because there's way too much screen-attention given to him. Maybe he's going to become a reoccurring character? I don't know, and I really don't care. It took away from Ezra Miller, who's more talented than all three of those other actors combined.

Basically: When everyone is a main character, movie, no one is the main character. You needed to choose whose story you were telling, because you've got way too much going on.

There were aspects of this movie—the costuming, the creature design—that were so fantastic. There was incredible potential for a good movie. But it gets lost in no one being willing to make the movie tell one cohesive story. I'm not honestly sure if that's a failure of the script or a failure of the director or a failure of not having anyone outside of the usually Harry Potter crew step in to create something that doesn't require additional reading of backstories on Pottermore to decipher what happened.

Would I watch the sequel? No. Major changes in the approach to casting and a tremendous refocusing of the story would have to happen before I'd even consider it. I love magic, and I think Eddie Redmayne is remarkably talented and perfect as Newt, but I don't love his fancy face and magic enough to watch four more disappointing movies.