I am not ashamed of saying that I was, and am, a Harry Potter fan. Not much a fan of the latest books, to be quite honest, but still I have always been a fan of that universe and I think J.K. Rowling delivered us some graceful pieces of writing when she was focused. If you don’t believe me, I’ll just save you the troubles of reading through the whole stuff and point you right to the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I still believe to be her masterpiece.
But I digress.
The point here is that being a Harry Potter fan I do understand all the hype around Fantastic Beasts. It’s one more chance to take a pick through a universe we are fond of and whose exploration seemed to be lost after the Deathly Hallows. I do understand it. Truly.
The trouble is that, being a Harry Potter fan, I do own the book. And by book I mean the 41 pages booklet of funny and yet irrelevant list of fantastic creatures, supposedly written by Newt Scamander.
Having read that, I was rather skeptical when I heard that it was going to turn into a 4 movies set. That’s about 10 pages for each movie. You get my point. I feared that there simply wasn’t enough material in there to support a fully developed narrative.
Was I right?
Just bear with me and find out.
Well, almost inevitably, the plot is thin.
There are some clever ideas in it, sure, like tapping into all that pre-Voldemort material briefly outlined during the Deathly Hallows. And here lies, as I see it, the very first problem: all that material didn’t fit into Harry Potter, as if Rowling helself just came up with something new towards the end of her old narrative and couldn’t resist in sqeezing it right through it. Which is pretty much what I think happened there.
Now you would imagine that, giving a blank canvas and the opportunity of actually telling that story, she would go back in being her focused true storyteller self. Then why isn’t this called The Rise of Grindelwald, or something? The truth is something I do not own, of course, but I do believe it to be a sad story and this story is about how little Rowling is and has been focused lately.
The story told in Fantastic Beasts seems to have the very same problems you could read into every Harry Potter novel from The Order of the Phoenix onwards. Or worst.
Ideas are good, and setting is great. The whole beauty of the movie seems to be about two concept keys: one of them is of course the grand displya of fantastic creatures; the other is the setting. New York during the late 20s, with charleston and glamour, contradictions and prohibition, can conquer anyone, with or without magic. Take the movie as it is, shift it towards in time and set it nowadays and what will be left of it? Very little, I’m afraid.
Then, aside from setting and ideas, Harry Potter had plot twists.
Not that many, I will grant that, but still you have some serious plot twists during the Harry Potter saga and what I like about them is that almost all of them were well constructed, not preposterous and actually made sense.
Do we have this in Fantastic Beasts?
Well, I’m afraid not.
Spoilers are in white, as usual, and you can read them by highlighting the text. My feed-reading friends choose not to see any formatting, so they can drop this right now.
Ok, let’s go.
The only decent plot twist in Fantastic Beasts is that Scamander and Kowalski do not exchange briefcases the first time they jump into each other. Everything else is so obvious it’s rather insulting. Percival Graves is Gellert Grindelwald? Oh, you don’t say? The obscurus is actually Credence? Oh, I’m really shocked!
But that wouldn’t be so bad if it was the only insulting thing.
What I really really really did not enjoy was the way characters were built.
And it leaves me with the doubt of what Rowling would have done if she was given full control of the movies.
Because I know, characters from the Harry Potter novels were groctesque as well. See Umbridge, or Luna Lovegood, or Snape himself. The trouble with books is that while you are reading you can use your imagination to stress and underline what strikes you the most, so if a groctesque character does something particularly dramatic the comic factor instantly fades away leaving you with the impression of what cought your mind the most. On the other hand, movies have a greater power: as they say, a picture is worth a 1000 words. Why is that a trouble? Because if you present a character with groctesque features in a movie, it’s more than likely that we will be unable to take him seriously no matter how heroic his deeds will be.
Was Snape groctesque? Well, yes. But he was Alan Fucking Rickman. Was Dumbledore a parody of Merlin? Well, yes. But he was Richard Fucking Harris. And I could go on and on with Bellatrix, Lupin and Voldemort himself.
In this movie, we are sort of lacking this kind of stature for characters. Even if Colin Farrell is trying, and doing a decent job at it, you have some really really bad pieces of acting.
I mean, after you get everything sorted out, and you see Gellert Grindelwald’s true face, even Scamander doesn’t manage to come through as that odd. Everyone is odd. Odd beyond recognition. Odd beyond credibility. And nothing, not even a death potion, is able to be perceived as a threat. The my-God-he’s-going-to-kill-us-all monster is an emo kid. Pure Disney in its latest and less amusing form.
So was I right or was I wrong in fearing that this movie was going to be inconsistent?
Well, I was right, but for the wrong reasons.
The trouble is not Fantastic Beasts (the booklet). The trouble is the broader story underneath.
Harry Potter started with a very dark, very twisted setting: killings, orphanage, war, prophecies, secrets stirring.
Fantastic Beasts starts with a Niffler.
And though I am very fond of the little guy, I don’t believe this is what narratives should be about.
Science Fiction and Fantasy both have a great power and a great responsibility: they tell stories that are out of our world in order to make us understand ours a little more. The art though is not being able to do this: everyone can do this with a couple of metaphores and a niffler. The art is doing this without being obvious. It’s a test that this first Fantastic Beasts is tragically failing at.