Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When a young wizard is forced to suppress his powers instead of harnessing it, he produces a malevolent entity referred to as an Obscurus, while the child himself becomes the host, an Obscurial. Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) arrival in New York coincides with one wreaking havoc in the city, subjecting the magical world to a constant threat of exposure. It doesn’t help that Gellert Grindelwald, one of the most notorious dark wizards of all time, is on the loose and with a bad agenda in mind. Newt’s suitcase hosts a plethora of wild beasts that he has taken in and cared for from different parts of the globe. In fact, his trip across the pond involves finding yet another one to add to his collection. When he openly uses magic to tame his beasts in public, he catches the attention of ex-Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Things get more complicated when he crosses paths with No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an American muggle eager to start his own bakeshop. Together with Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s Legilimens sister, the quartet must find a way to protect the beasts while dodging a combo of political and magical attacks from Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking Auror who has accused them of being responsible for the American wizarding community’s recent dilemma.

It’s so nice to get not just a glimpse, but rather an entire movie dealing with the wizarding community on the other side of the Atlantic. All of the Harry Potter films have focused more on Europe, particularly England because of Hogwarts’ location. While several other wizarding schools have been mentioned, we never really got to experience them, so we’re not really familiar with how they are as a society, who’s who in their political hierarchies, and what big threats they face outside of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named territory. This film will seem kind of weird because of the glaring absence of the Boy Who Lived, but what it will make you realize is that more than the central character, the hero of the franchise, it’s actually the rich universe Rowling has created that we have come to love after all, a universe that just never fails to fascinate its fans.

And that very setting is one of this spinoff’s peculiarities. While Newt maintains his British accent for the mere fact that he is English, everyone around him including Irish Colin Farrell speaks with an American twang, some sort of a neutralized New York accent. The absence of popular locations such as Diagon Alley also appears to be a detriment at first, but it doesn’t take long for you to notice how the general feel of the wizarding universe has been preserved, and the magic is not lost at all. Kudos to those in charge of the production design! Most of the spells are the same, while we get introduced to some terminology unique to the American wizarding world, such as the term “No-Maj” for “Muggle”.

But I guess what I liked the most was the realization that while we are done with the central Harry Potter narrative, the world they inhabit still leaves a lot of related material and storylines that can be explored. It is somehow relieving to watch a Harry Potter related subplot that does not involve a looming danger courtesy of Voldemort, and yet remain to be as exciting as the other films in the series. Even so, the cinematography still leans toward the dark side, in a literal sense. Perhaps it is just one of the establishing factors that makes a Harry Potter movie a Harry Potter movie. But at least the main premise is not as heavy, maybe due to the fact that we are not as emotionally invested on Newt as we are with Harry.

The inclusion of a No-Maj is also a breath of fresh air because Jacob himself becomes the very personification of us muggles watching at the cinema. It is through him that we are introduced to this world on the other side of the pond, something we should already be familiar with but are seeing for the first time. As such, his awe and bewilderment becomes are own. Consider this in contrast to the usual depiction of a muggle in the previous movies, who seem to bring about nothing but trouble. In a way, it can also be an allegorical argument, bringing forward the proposition that perhaps humans and wizards can harmoniously co-exist after all. Unfortunately, that thesis is shot down as fast as it takes off, because we human beings are insufferable idiots. Thank you, Jon Voight's character.

To sum it all up, I felt like giving this film just four out of five clovers because I admit it felt quite reductive at first. As you go through its more than two-our run, though, you are bound to enjoy the ride. Add the fact that it’s been ages since Deathly Hallows Part 2 came out and nostalgia will just eventually take over, like welcoming back an old friend.

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