Film review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Director: Davis Yates)
By Sascha Krieger
We never really thought it was over, right? It’s been five years since the Harry Potter saga ended and despite creator J.K. Rowling’s assertion it was clear it was never going away so quietly. Firstly, the Harry Potter franchise has been a money-making machine that you don’t turn off so easily. Secondly, the longer the story went on the more it mirrored our „real“ world, its issues, conflicts, debates, social, political, individual. It was a coming of age tale that became universal as well as socially and even politically concrete, in which the personal pain of growing up became more and more intertwined with larger issues, with the necessity to take a stance, to decide where one stands in the wider picture of things. Now, the world has – despite some expectations – not ended and so it is not surprising that Rowling’s parallel universe is continuing, too. Potter himself is alive and well and going through a parent’s struggles (in a hugely popular play currently playing in London) and Rowling has just started her news franchise. After novel and theatre, film is now the medium of choice. This foray into a world of magic goes back almost a hundred years, to the 1920s. It leaves the school rooms of Hogwarts and the pangs of adolescence. Its new hero is Newt Scamander whom Potter enthusiasts know as the author of the standard textbook on magical creatures. What started as a trilogy has already morphed into a five-part series the first instalment of which is now in theatres. And we can all relax: This new child has turned out really well.
The film follows Scamander on a dangerous journey. The young man is working on two things: a book on magical creatures and, more importantly, to create acceptance for them in a world that is more and more gripped by fear. Which, as in the later parts of the previous series is everywhere: fear of „dangerous beasts“, fear of a war with the non-magical world, fear of a civil war in their own community, the rise of evil forces. But the non-magical world has its share of fears, too. Times are bad – were at the brink of the Great Depression – capitalism has no place for individual dreams and as always in times of crisis people lash out against what they perceive as foreign, alien, dangerous. So while a proto-fascist pureness movement grows in the wizarding community, a (literal) witch hunt is beginning to rear its ugly head in „reality“. On both sides demagogues are on the rise, plurality and freedom are under threat. One may or may not read this as an analogy of the world we’re living it (Rowling being a very political mind) or as a general metaphor for humankind’s ability to mess things up, the commentary is all there, like it or not.
For the first time we leave England and enter the wizarding world of America. The quirky charm is gone, this world is darker, starker, colder. New York looms large and threatening, black and grey are the colours of choice. Reality and magical community are more separate (they must not married), yet live much closer. The pressure not to be discovered is high, which leads to strict rules, draconic laws and a climate of fear and intimidation that the ambivalent president of the American witches and wizards not only cannot abolish but which she even nurtures. Scamander is an outsider who feels more at home among his animals, wild, cunning, yet never intrinsically evil. Eddie Redmayne plays him as an introverted, impatient young man who has little time for his fellow humans. He is fidgety and restless among them but patient, loving and full of life in his own personal world, full of strange beasts, one, that he carries around with him in his – magically enlarged – suitcase. An alternative universe, colourful, bright, hopeful.
An interesting contrast that fuels the film. On the one hand is the personal journey that leads Scamander into an unlikely alliance, even a blossoming friendship with n optimistic, clumsy, lovable no-maj, which is American for muggle, played by a brilliant Dan Fogler, and an enmity/alliance with a former auror trying to revive her career by catching Newt for his illegal activities. Theirs is a quirky story, full of funny sidetracks – the niffler, a little creature attracted to anything shiny, will have an assured place in the Potter world’s merchandising machinery – strange, surprising and always entertaining adventures and a warmth that cannot leave the cold around them unaffected. There, people struggle with fear, there is no colour, only cold efficiency or squalor, people are pale, lifeless, paralyzed, lashing out at everything they can regard as a scapegoat. One of the film’s most intricate inventions involves a strategy for people – children in particular – to deny their true identity, one which results in disaster and ultimately kills. A society in which people need to hide who they are – even from themselves – the warning is clear and the narrative execution of the idea devastatingly frightening.
The film’s true magic lies in the ease and lightness with which its two levels are combines: the adventures story and the gothic horror story, the fairy tale and the bleak dystopia (even though the film takes place in a version of the past). The outsider cannot remain outside, he must try and find his own position in the wider world. A bunch of unlikely heroes rescuing the world: never has this seemed stranger and more logical than here where the avoidance of a complete catastrophe is almost a co-incidence. Not all is lost but nothing is saved. But hope prevails: in unlikely friendships, deeply flawed heroes, goodness in the face of selfishness. It’s the characters through whom the light enters the film – and there is plenty of it. Through all the bleakness, the film is light-hearted, often humorous, never cynical and not for a second boring. David Yates‘ directed four of the Harry Potter films – this one is his best, because its is so complex, yet entertaining, substantial but not even for a moment feeling forced. The narrative ease with which he connects the contrasting aspects without allowing any of them to dominate the others, balances hope and fear, allows its audience to watch and dream, to be entertained or to think as they choose, sketches its issues rather than speaking them out, thereby giving the viewer control over what it might mean to them. An open film celebrating the very freedom that is its guiding principle, light, dark, frightening, funny. A strange and compelling mixture. Just like life. J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world never felt closer.