Sunday, 27 November 2016

Was that everything that came out of the case?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
(2016)

(SPOILERS) It can definitely be a positive to approach a picture with lowered expectations. I could quite easily have skipped JK Rowling’s self-penned Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on the big screen, as I did the latter five Harry Potters. While I’ve never been a devotee of the series, I’ve never had much against either, and a few of them (The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Half-Blood Prince) I was even rather impressed by. But there was a nagging feeling that, whenever I caught up with the latest instalment, they were foremost intended for devotees of the books, dutifully faithful and lacking the necessary flair and individuality to become truly cinematic affairs in their own right. At this point, the Fantastic Beasts franchise has no such encumbrances (even if it looks to be weighed down with Potter lore subsequently, much as Lucas’ prequel trilogy was), and it benefits enormously. It also benefits from an array of top-flight talent in pretty much every significant role, such that even the longueurs during this (inevitably) lengthy introductory chapter don’t feel like a hard slog.


So what’s with all the tepid reviews, then? Part of it may be that Fantastic Beasts is so visually undifferentiated from has gone went before. Remember the surge of enthusiasm when Guillermo Del Toro was announced as director of The Hobbit, and its gradual dissipation as Peter Jackson’s “same-old” took over (although, if we’d known it would be the director of Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, rather than the one of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, we might have stayed our anticipation)? The Potter-verse needed that kind of shot-in-the-arm. David Yates is a perfectly versatile journeyman, meaning that he puts all the pieces in the right places, and makes perfectly competent (above average, to be fair) fare, but lacks that spark of true inspiration. He’s inhabited this sphere for five movies on the trot now. The only other titan of a current franchise with that kind of record is Michael Bay, and you wouldn’t really want to be replicating Transformers, would you?


So Yates delivers the requisite washed-out hues and energetic action with due accomplishment, but he’s essentially in a holding pattern, which you can also feel in Warner Bros’ rigorous branding. Weening a spin-off is a delicate, very rarely achieved balance. It requires casting the atmospheric spell of the original much-loved movie(s), but sufficiently differently in approach not to lead to déjà vu or weariness.  Kicking off with notes of the Potter theme isn’t overly confident (hedging bets, although composer James Newton Howard is new to the series) and it seems, with the focus on Dumbledore and Grindelwald in future instalments (depending on how diminishing the returns are; this already looks like a Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, box office-wise), this is going to be very much striking the beats of a prequel trilogy rather than a different story in the same universe. Verdicts are necessarily reserved on Rogue One, but that looks from the trailers like a spin-off hitting all the wrong beats tonally, simply because it doesn’t have characters to invest in; Fantastic Beasts has that at least. Indeed, it’s easily its best and most agreeable quality.


Which is not to say the plot doesn’t have its virtues, but it is a grab-bag of familiar elements and themes. The premise of a collection of escaped rare and magical creatures is instantly arresting but also instantly leads to Jumanji-esque concerns over an effects-heavy barrage of chases and escapes and the like. Which is partly the case here, and probably why the refugees from Newt Scamander’s suitcase are stapled to the introduction of an over-arching prequel plotline.


Really, though, intolerance metaphors in blockbusters have already been done to broad strokes death in X-Men to little overall consequence, and there’s something of stir-and-repeat feeling here. When Fantastic Beasts talks of the persecution of witches and wizards (and invokes a new Salem), we’re not talking about the same thing as someone brewing a few herbs and casting the odd hex; we’re talking full blown fantasy land wandsmanship, transmogrifications and incredible feats (and maybe turning into a newt, if not a Scamander). As others have noted, there’s a similarly not-quite-fitting aspect to the lesson, since those on the receiving end in both this and the Fox/Marvel-verse frequently stand as gods in relation to the mere mortals who would notionally oppress them.


That said, while the tropes may have been over used, they at less have a degree of reinvigoration, similar to the one Michael Fassbender brought to Xavier in First Class. The likes of Samantha Morton, in an undifferentiated persecutor part (especially post-True Blood), are able to breathe life into standard types. In particular, Ezra Miller, an excellent actor (comparing him to Crispin Glover might be overdoing it, but he elevates any mainstream fare he’s a part of) who ends up as the nominal Big Bad (although, not really; his Obscurial status seems to echo interpretations of poltergeist activity as inspired by humans present, although the idea of the Obscurus as a parasite is slightly offbeat, since it’s a parasite spawned by its host), gives his role such conviction that the clichés roll away. 


And, while some critics have identified a tonal mismatch, I rather like the interplay of the larky hunt for creatures and the dread force wreaking havoc on New York. It may not quite dovetail successfully (Newt is never sufficiently on board with the latter threat to justify suddenly confronting it when his suitcase is full again), and there's an inelegance to the way Newt gets off the boat and is immediately introduced to the main plot elements by simply walking down the street, but in a two-and-quarter-hour picture the distinctive shifts are actually quite welcome.


What innovations there are do have the air of magpie meanderings. It’s well-known that Rowling has been asked to contribute to Doctor Who (wise of her not to, at least under current management), and here she has fashioned a Doctor in all but name, this being the eleventh, Matt Smith, complete with bowtie and geek-chic, albeit under the influence of Eddie Redmayne’s capable tics, Newt is closer to manifesting Asperger-chic, a bumbling but passionate protector of endangered species who finds it difficult to look anyone in the eye but just knows what is right.


Some have found his performance ingratiating, and it is one full of very actorly sleights and flourishes, with a dangerous dose of Norman Wisdom and Lee Evans, but I think it works here. Redmayne brings a natural warmth and sincerity, and more especially he’s blessed by a complete absence of Moffatisms that did in the actual Doctor he’s half-imitating (that is, self-satisfied self-referentiality up the wazoo).


But it further bear stressing that this pseudo-Doctor comes with a sonic screwdriver/wand and a pseudo-TARDIS/magical suitcase, complete with many rooms (preservation-conscious zoo cages, effectively). So yes, Fantastic Beasts wears this on its sleeve, but it doesn’t matter too much. It doesn’t feel like slavish lifting, and Redmayne has clearly thought about his performance such that, while Newt is heroic, he is never so in a grandstanding, self-glorifying or inane way. 


He’s also provided with sterling supported from his co-stars. Dan Fogler, an actor I haven’t noted before, shines as Kowalski, almost stealing the movie as the Muggle/No-Maj introduced to a magical kingdom and falling for Queenie (Alison Sudol, who has the ear-to-ear smile of her generation’s Cameron Diaz). The comic relief role can run the risk of being wearily over-played, but Fogler gets the level exactly right.


Indeed, this plotline, for all that the no No-Maj thing is, like the persecution of magicians, rather rote, far more affecting than the attempt to inject a spark into Newt’s relationship with Tina (Katherine Waterston). The problem there is that Tina’s a memorable character when she’s taking an authoritarian, adversarial stance towards Newt, but as soon as she’s on board with his mission she becomes next-to-immaterial.


Elsewhere, we are introduced to the controlling structures of this period universe. The magical authorities work reasonably well, forces that, through ignorance and inflexibility, cause more problems than they solve. The magical New York underworld falls flat, though; the goblin speakeasy is as replete with visually unconvincing character designs as it was fifteen years ago in the days of Dobby, and if some of Newt’s creatures (particularly the platypus-like Niffler, although the insecure green twig is a blatant Groot-steal) are appealing, there’s a general sense that Yates isn’t wringing anything new from his crew. The politicians, meanwhile, are entirely a bust, with Jon Voight wheeled on and wheeled off.


Which brings us to the "real" villain. It’s a bit of an ignominy for Colin Farrell that his solid performance as Graves should, in the final product, be revealed as the manifestation of Johnny Depp. They’ve interchanged before, of course, in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, but I can’t help feel that Farrell, who hasn’t generally had the greatest success with his Hollywood roles, has finally been attached to a good one only for his work to be reduced to a footnote by the greater star who appears for all of two minutes –  and the latter with scant continuity of performance or style.


Which is to say, Farrell delivers, particularly in his manipulation of Miller. As for the widespread vocal disavowal of Depp as Grindelwald, as if his very presence is now a death sentence on quality, well I had no problem with him (albeit he’s looking a bit puffy of late). I’ve rarely found Depp less than at least entertaining in a role (hey, I’m the one who liked Mortdecai), with the proviso that I won’t be checking out his collaborations with Kevin Smith, and he’s fine in this. Comments have made it sound as if he’s awful, when he’s nothing of the sort. The sole problem is that, narratively, his presence detracts from Farrell.


Yates delivers numerous engaging set pieces, from death sentences to fantastic beasty hot pursuits (the teapot set piece is especially well-delivered; Redmayne’s mating dance fails to enchant or amuse, however) to de rigueur city-wide destruction-porn. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them rattles along, and if Rowling the screenplay writer is trying to assemble too many elements (almost as if, halfway through the process, she decided to cross-pollinate a one-off tale with a new franchise), she nevertheless maintains interest and intrigue throughout. The prospect that Newt won’t be front-and-centre of future instalments is perhaps a disappointment, as Redmayne brings something agreeably off-kilter (if very “dram”) to the series that should be encouraged. The main fear is that the saga will reduce to a rigorously unremarkable course of good vs evil wand-waving that leads to viewer apathy. But that’s studios (and presiders over their own universes) for you.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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