More noise than signal

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Now, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was sitting on a pile of treasure that would make Smaug envious, so perhaps it’s not my place to comment. However I do think one of the things I’d be least likely to do was become a full-time twitter troll, instigating your followers to flood the inboxes of anyone who takes issue with your poorly formed and often plainly incorrect political visions, while tweeting at vile misogynist hatemongers that they are good men, and national treasures.

But then, I’m not J.K. Rowling, and maybe that’s what brings her joy. Who am I to judge? I’m just some asshole. In my defence, I’m an asshole who’s capable of understanding the world and formulating opinions on events and people without tediously and tenuously referring them back to my previous creations, and an asshole who doesn’t conspicuously and deliberately seeks a hornet’s nest to poke a few days before I’ve got something to promote with quite remarkable consistency. What I’m saying is, while I’m glad so many people find joy in her works, J.K. Rowling is a thin-skinned, nasty piece of work in a beloved author’s clothing.

Her latest outing is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel, chronologically if not content-wise to the Harry Potter tomes, set in a pre-WW2 New York best described as prohibition-era, if you swap alcohol for magic. Into this scene steps Perwinkle Puffinstuffer (Eddie Redmayne), who it transpires is hoping to return a rare magical beast to its native Arizonan habitat, but bumblingly switches his magical suitcase containing all manner of creatures with the wannabe baker and in no way magical Jeremy Beadle (Dan Fogler).

It somehow falls to disgraced ex-magical cop Brandy Disarono (Katherine Waterston) to clean up Periwinkle and Jeremy’s mess, although additional wrinkles appear when Jeremy falls in love with Brandy’s sister Amaretto (Alison Sudol), but such consortations with non-magical folks are, well, prohibited. Hence the era. By ways I can’t quite recollect, this ties into Brandy’s ex-boss magical cop Mordant Grimvile (Colin Farrel)’s manipulation of a teenager, Tony Slattery (Ezra Miller), who’s somehow dangerously repressing his magic resulting in some big bundle of CGI effects rampaging through New York that Periwinkle and Brandy must stop. The final upshot of all this is that the scheme has been puppetmastered by Felbad Darkmagic (of the New Hampshire Darkmagics) (Johnny Depp), the Morgoth to Lord of the Ring‘s Sauron, in quite the most underwhelming reveal of recent times given how sparsely Darkmagic is even referenced in the rest of the film.

A reasonably valid complaint for all of the Potter films woud be that they always attempted to cram too much of the source material into the film, even when a great deal of it felt like filler material. As Rowling’s first original screenplay, she’s clearly thought to counter that habit by writing a story that would comfortably fit on the back of a fag packet, even if cigarettes were packaged individually. But I suppose those tweets won’t write themselves.

Fantastic Beasts is to Harry Potter as The Phantom Menace was to Star Wars – a film that, I am very confident in saying even with no knowledge of the contents of the further planned four films, has no meaningful relation to the sequels that can’t be summed up in a sentence, probably something along the lines of “evil Johnny Depp exists”. Just as there’s little more to Phantom Menace than “man looks for spare parts”, there’s little more to Fantastic Beasts than “man looks for escaped animals”.

The usual defence for all this is along the lines of “it’s worldbuilding, innit”, but if there’s no story and frankly precious little character to go along with it, there’s not much point to watching it. While there’s a reasonably talented cast, there’s not a lot for them to work with, and it all comes across as rather bland. In particular we’re going to have to put Eddie Redmayne on the watch list, as either through choice or happenstance he seems to be Hugh Granting himself, giving essentially the same performance here as he did in The Danish Girl, and given the gulf in character between “prototype Danish transexual” and “magic Terry Nutkins”, that’s a little worrying.

As an excuse to link up a bunch of CG setpieces, which is really all the film is, it’s just about up to that meagre task, and the mechanics of the film – the pacing and CG, etc, is adequate. So, given that I expect the design document for this film was “fleece some cash from people that miss Harry Potter“, I suppose it’s doing what it sets out to do, but don’t expect applause for so unlofty and obvious a goal. A special FU to whomever came up with the decision to, in a film stressing so much the need for wizards to remain hidden, an ending that demolishes entire city blocks, and then has to almost literally wave a magic wand to make an entire city forget all this nonsense. If you need an immediate narrative undo button, maybe not write it that way in the first place, eh?

Oh, and I am aware that Perwinkle Puffinstuffer is not the correct name of Redmayne’s character, or anyone else’s for that matter, but I’d forgotten them while writing up these notes and used them as a placeholder names. Having looked up the proper names, mine are better. So I’m keeping them. With apologies to anyone outside of the U.K., or under the age of thirty, who are unlikely to understand references to Terry Nutkins and Jeremy Beadle.