Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Why I Love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As the follow-up to one of the most beloved franchises in film history, 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrived heavy with the weight of expectation. With David Yates still in the director's chair, and Rowling herself penning the screenplay, surely we were in for a rich new adventure inside the Wizarding World we know and love.

Did it turn out the way we all expected? Not exactly. Does it still hold a special place in the heart of this die-hard Potter fan? Absolutely.

Of course it's not perfect. The action sequences are entertaining but silly, which often jars with the overall dark, threatening tone. Colin Farrell's Percival Graves makes for a pleasingly mundane villain, especially after the nose-less Voldemort. But then they had to turn him into Johnny Depp at the end. Why not just make Graves a servant of Grindelwald?

But there's lots to love too. Protagonist Newt Scamander and his unlikely sidekick Jacob make a very likeable duo, supported by surprisingly snappy dialogue from Rowling's debut screenplay. 1920s New York is no Hogwarts, but it complements the dark, hostile tone of the film. And the beasts themselves are the icing on the cake - CGI masterpieces designed to make us laugh, gasp and go "aww" in all the right places.

But what makes this film special is the same thing that helped Harry Potter stand out in the crowd of magical children's novels: it's actually about something. Of course, every film has a point to make or themes it wants to explore, even family blockbusters. But what I love about Fantastic Beasts 1 is that the whole story - every scene, character and relationship - exists to discuss the film's key questions.

Gender Expression and Where to Find It

First of all, Fantastic Beasts provides a detailed exploration of gender expression, something that remains rare in Hollywood even today. An excellent discussion of Newt's gentle masculinity can be found here, and it's wonderful to see such an understated, thoughtful leading man in an age where bad-ass superheroes are making the big bucks. But this theme isn't limited to the film's protagonist.

Sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein display very different takes on femininity - Tina is a wannabe hard-boiled detective, seen showing traditionally male traits like ambition and gruffness. Meanwhile Queenie, from her cutesy voice to her aptness for household magic, displays a more traditional femininity.

Crucially, though, both women take their gender expressions in their stride. Queenie is delighted to find a happy house guest in Jacob, and the two hit it off immediately. Tina, though an impostor in the New York auror office, seems perfectly at home in the world of gritty investigation work.

Indeed, Tina and Newt's blossoming romance is characterised by them embracing sides of themselves they are less familiar with. Awkward, unassuming Newt learns to open up to another human, and Tina softens her hard edges as she warms up to our protagonist.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important idea considered in the film. Almost every relationship explores a different answer to the question: What does it mean to care about someone?

The Obscurus - Caring Too Much

First up is the newest addition to our catalogue of fantastic beasts  the obscurus. This force of dark energy is created when a child is forced to hide their magical ability. The obscurus terrorising New York is that of Credence Barebone, a powerful young wizard who was adopted by witch hunters.

The obscurus acts as a defence mechanism for Credence - it lashes out whenever he is angry or in danger, destroying buildings and even killing the people who oppress him. As a massive Potterhead, I can't help seeing the obscurus as a kind of anti-patronus: a spiritual protector that's built on anger and fear rather than hope and happiness. And like the destruction it wreaks on the city, the violent care the obscurus shows for Credence will eventually destroy him.

Graves and Credence - A Means to an End

Percival Graves (head of security for the American Ministry of Magic) is busy trying to stop a dark mysterious monster from terrorising New York. Credence, who seems to have a special importance to Graves - so much so that Graves rescues him from his cruel adoptive family, and promises a life away from harm in exchange for help.

As the movie continues, we learn to see Graves as the villain of the piece, and his relationship with Credence takes on a new meaning. Graves does care about the boy, but only as an asset. He sees something special in Credence, and he's willing to show kindness if it will further his own (rather mysterious) ends.

Newt - The Master Carer

And then there's our protagonist. First introduced to us as the author of the "Care of Magical Creatures" textbook, it's no surprise that Newt is defined by caring. More specifically, he is presented as someone who cares for those who can't offer him the same thing in return.

Most obviously, he has dedicated his life to the proper treatment of magical animals, a task he seems to trust no one else with (he puts a very complex undetectable extension charm on his suitcase just so he can bring his whole menagerie with him to New York). There's no doubt that the creatures owe a lot to Newt, though of course he expects nothing in return from them.

But there's a human example too. At the start of the final act, Newt finds a photo of Leta Lestrange, an old flame of his. This is clearly shoehorned into the film to foreshadow the next movie, but it does provide an insight into Newt's character. Seeing him look at the photo, mind-reader Queenie intuits that Leda was "a taker," whereas Newt needs "a giver". Another example here of a relationship where Newt gave more than he received.

Newt is a master of caring for others, but he's not used to receiving care in return. It's no wonder then that he initially resists Jacob's attempts to befriend him, or that he's so slow on the uptake when it becomes clear that Tina likes him. While most characters are exploring what it means to care for others, Newt experiences for the first time what it's like to be truly cared for.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might stumble a bit as it tries to appeal to both children and grown-up Harry Potter fans. It might get a little confusing as they attempt to set up a five-film spin-off franchise. But it remains a pacey, thrilling, heartfelt adventure that breathes new life into JK Rowling's wizarding world. And crucially, it pushes the themes of friendship, bravery and compassion that makes the Harry Potter books so timeless. I'm sure that will be an enduring feature of the series...

See you next time.

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