April: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

There has been some household excitement for this year's installment from the Wizarding World so we have gone back to see the first prequel movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). We get a look at the magical effects on 1920's New York and get a more detailed look at Fantastic Beasts beyond Hagrid's shack. It's a new view of magic than the Harry Potter films as we follow adults rather than students and even get the perspective of a "Muggle," or "No-Maj." We are introduced the to the character Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, a magical focus on animals rather than spells, and the story covertly tells of the capture of Grindewald, who is a bit of a Voldemort with a haircut and unfortunate casting.

This is the first of the J.K. Rowling adaptations that is based on a non-narative book, but a reference book of wild-life in the Wizarding World and it is the first adaptation from her work where she wrote the screenplay. It's the fifth Wizarding movie directed by David Yates who directed the last four Harry Potter films (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hollows Parts 1 & 2). Fantastic Beasts earned the least of these films ($234 million) and had the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score (74%, certified fresh) still very impressive ways to measure this movie and it brings a fresh charm to the world of magic, without relying on as much of a fan base for the source material.

The Book

It isn't the biggest book, only 88 pages, the audio book is around two hours long. It is a collection of descriptions of beasts, real, mythological or original, all with magical traits. It is written from the perspective of Newt Scamander who is even credited on the cover (even though Rowling's name is in a larger font). About a third of the book is the introduction that gives context for what it takes to be a Fantastic Beast, a brief backstory for Scamander, and instances when muggles encountered Fantastic Beasts and why they don't tend to notice them among other things.

While there a fictional designations between beasts and beings were decided there are notes that centaurs and merpeople declined to be classified by wizards as beings despite fitting the physical and mental criteria because they didn't want to be associated with hags and vampires. That's pretty messed up that the Wizarding World includes hags and vampires, but a little more messed up that centaurs and merpeople are racist toward them.

The book breaks down breeds of dragons, the relation of the Yeti and Bigfoot (both are possible breeds of trolls) and everything from talking spiders, to sphinxes, to gnomes, to the dodo. It turns out the dodo did not go extinct, it just has the magical ability to conceal itself. We get a little taste of some disappearing dodos in Scamander's briefcase tour in the movie.

The audio book is read by Eddie Redmayne which makes it feel as though it has a close relationship to the movie. The book does mention that Scamander went to the US and made connections between the MACUSA (organization of wizards in North America) and the ministry of magic (European organization of wizards) and was able to capture Gindelwald. However, it doesn't bode well for the possible charming romance between Scamander and Tina Goldstein as it notes that he ends up having a marriage to a lady named "Porpentina," which is a nonsense name for a person...

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Wait... I'm getting breaking news that "Tina Goldstein" is short for "Porpentina Goldstein" as it is listed in Katherine Waterston's credits. Still, it's a nonsense name.

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The Characters

Eddie Redmayne

This role seemed to be the odd culmination of a whirlwind couple of years of acting. 2014 was the year he won an Oscar for his role in The Theory of Everything and was nominated the next year for The Danish Girl. Between these two releases, he played the very odd villain of Jupiter Ascending in one of the most ballsy and bizarre performances in a very strange movie. I can't say Jupiter Ascending is a bad movie, it a well made movie with a lot of bad stuff in it, but Eddie Redmayne is the one actor who read the script, saw a campy movie and decided to lean face-first into the role.

The year after The Danish Girl and Jupiter Ascending, Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a wizard with limited social skills, tentative to make any eye contact. He's not the best wizard in the world, but he is skilled in magizoology. For his role Redmayne spend a lot of time with real zoologists to study how they would approach wild animals, which leads to some of the best physical comedy of his where he attempts a mating dance with an elephant sized animal.

Dan Fogler

Fogler is best known outside of this movie from his yearly Thanksgiving episodes on The Goldbergs where he plays the very funny uncle who is always working on a tragically stupid scheme to get rich quick. As Jacob Kowalski he plays the endearing non-magical person who is thrust into the magical world as the audience surrogate as we learn about he magical ins and outs of both Magical Beasts and MACUSA.

The Sisters

Katherine Waterston (as Tina Goldstein) and Alison Sudol (as Queenie Goldstein) play a pair of sisters who are both rather skilled at magic, Tina as a detective staking out an anti-Wizarding cult, Queenie as a mind reader (although she can't read the minds of people with accents). They are both hindered badly buy the 1920's society that they live in, Tina trying to make it in the MACUSA as a woman and Queenie who has a forbidden love for the no-maj Jacob. The two actresses look like sisters and play off each other very well, Waterston is starting to be a pretty established actress (Inherent Vice, Alien: Covenant, Logan Lucky) and Sudol who is more of a singer and musician than an actress.

Colin Farrell/Johnny Depp

Farrell and Depp play Graves and Grindelwald, respectively. The back of Depp's head with white hair is one of the very first images in the movie and the Grindelwald version of this character is in disguise as Graves until they very end of the movie. I understand that Grindelwald is a talked about character in the Harry Potter books as a former close friend of Dumbledore who later turned into wizard villain number one well before Voldemort was ever a tiny head living on some guy's back.

Ezra Miller

Miller plays Credence Barebone, a character name that makes me instantly get CCR songs stuck in my head. Miller is an actor who has been pretty impressive in some of his roles in the past, but everyone else who watched this movie with me expressed their displeasure at the sight of him the moment he came onto screen. Credence seems to be a victim of the cult, Graves and of a terrible haircut, but in the end he is a victim of the haircut and an Obscurus, a magical cloud of badness.

The Director

This is the fifth of at least six movies in the Wizarding series of films for director David Yates. These movies have made up pretty much all of his feature film making career aside from an indie film and the recent Tarzan atrocity. Yates brought in the very stylized coloring of a rich gray coloring that makes the films feel like they come out of a stylized fog. Out of these five movies of note, Yates has used four different cinematographers, all of them are older (60's and 70's) European DP's, but all of these movies have had a fairly uniform look for the magical world. This movie has great costumes, during one viewing this month there was a spontaneous utterance of appreciation for Newt's blue coat, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that this movie won the Oscar for best costumes for 2016 movies.

Film References

As a movie set in the '20's, Fantastic Beasts can be compared to other contemporary movies set around the same time like Peter Jackson's King Kong, or Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby. All three movies have very eye catching representations of the time that are at least fairly similar in aesthetic, but Fantastic Beasts looks less CGI than the other two, until destruction is put back together by a few men in hats. The Fantastic Beasts filmmakers decided to build their own 1926 New York City in England rather than making it completely CGI or trying to find places in the city that hadn't changed in 90+ years. The movies that I am reminded of from Fantastic Beasts are not 1920's movies or necessarily New York movies.

Citizen Kane is the one movie from around the same period that is possibly referenced in the campaign rally scene. it is more of a set dressing allusion than an allusion of the scene as the Candidate speaks in front of a large banner with his name and face filling the backdrop. The candidate Henry Shaw, Jr. comes from newspaper wealth and his downfall is later revealed to be the result of his bullying of of the Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) character in the newsroom. To make a long story short, Kane is a newspaper man who runs for office to feed his ego and later dies because he can't hold onto a snow globe. It's odd, in all of the magical cleaning up of the city, I have no idea how the MACUSA wiped the memories of the no-maj New Yorkers that a prominant New Yorker was killed during a strange campaign rally accident.

Toward the midway mark of the film, our main characters run afoul of the MACUSA and Tina Goldstein character (Katherine Waterston) is being punished while sitting in a chair flowing over a nefarious looking liquid (that later comes alive). This scene set in a dirty industrial chamber that is reminiscent of an interrogation scene in Brazil where the Jonathan Pryce character is questioned in a large cube shaped room with dirty white panels on the walls. This is not to be confused with the final interrogation scene that appears to be set in a nuclear reactor.

This MACUSA building is set in Woolworths is one of the most original settings of the film with a lobby whose ceiling reaches beyond the naked eye. There is a magical clock that spins around and moves in the space. As we are transported down the building into the subbasements we go into a a bureaucratic setting of rows and columns of desks of dark wood that have never seen daylight. This aspect is almost reminicient of the Steven Soderbergh movie Kafka that places the writer in a dystopian Prague, or the Crimson Permanent Assurance segment of Monty Python and the Meaning of Life that was directed by Terry Gilliam, or the scene of the offices in the town of Machine in Dead Man.

The scene that makes reference to a whole big chunk of movies, even if it is indirect in most instances takes place inside Scamander's suitcase. In his tour of the suitcase we are introduced to quite a few of the fantastic beasts that Scamander carries around, but one of the highlights is his Thunderbird whose main purpose in the movie is that he is trying to get it back to its natural habitat in the "wilds of Arizona." Inside the controlled habitat of the case Scamander is able to simulate the Thunderbird's natural habitat of Monument Valley, a valley of enormous natural rock towers in Northern Arizona that have been used in numerous films.

Monument Valley was a favorite location for the westerns director John Ford to shoot his cowboys or cavalry films from the late '20's to the early '70's. The Searchers is probably the most well known and critically acclaimed of these movies that were often starring John Wayne. The most iconic shot of that movie is in the closing scene where Wayne steps out through a cabin door to look out on Monument Valley while giving a real cowboy lean. Other great movies that he shot in monument valley include Stage Coach, My Darling Clementine and Rio Bravo, all of which included western towns that the production team built in the valley.

While the new Star Wars movies all seem to have their own versions of cantina scenes whether it's Maz Kanata's bar that includes a song from Lin-Manuel Miranda in The Force Awakens and the glitzy casino with a dark underbelly in The Last Jedi, Fantastic Beasts has its own seedy speakeasy of otherworldly swigging. Ron Pearlman is a goblin gangster, a singer croons about Wizarding World things, a house elf tends bar, and the no-maj of the group indulges himself in a drink that makes him uncontrollably blurt out giggles.

The Beasts

Bowtruckle

This tiny personified walking stick is Scamander's sidekick in the movie, a shy creature that didn't fit in with the rest of its family. The Bowtruckle gets an emotional arc where Scamander seems to hand him over to a goblin for information because the goblin is excited by its ability to pick locks. The beast characters in this movie were all brought to life not with actors talking to a ball on a stick in a room with green walls, but with puppet performers combined with computer graphics. The Bowtruckle was performed with a small stick figure puppet performed with a single puppeteer and the puppet was treated with CGI to make it look alive.

From the book: "Bowtruckles are known as peaceful creatures, but if the tree they live in is harmed by a lumberjack or tree surgeon, they are known to leap down and gouge out their eyes."

Erumpent

The Erumpet is more of a large elephant sized rhinoceros with bioluminescence in its head that gets hot and bothered over Eddie Redmayne. The puppet for the Erumpent was made up of a large outline and skeleton for the body and a large white head that was pretty close to the final representation of the creature in the movie. The puppet was operated by a half a dozen puppeteers and the lead puppeteer had a zoology degree.

From the book: "Erumpant numbers are not great, as males frequently explode each other during the mating season."

Niffler

The Niffler is the comedic heart of this movie, which is fitting that it is the reason that Scamander and the human comedic lead of the movie, Kowolsky, meet in the early scene in the bank. The Niffler loves shiny things and can fit a seemingly infinite amount of goodies in his pocket area in his stomach, much like Bender from Futurama's door in his chest. This creature is physically based on a honey badger, and much like the honey badger it doesn't give a shit, it just takes what it wants.

From the book: "Nifflers... should never be left in the house."

Thunderbird

This is the purpose for Scamander to come to America through New York City as he is trying to bring the Tunderbird to "the wilds of Arizona." I'm still not sure why that line is so funny to me. For a little context, in 1926 Arizona had been a state for less than twenty years and Phoenix had a population of ten to twenty thousand. The most populated areas of Arizona today were still in the "wilds" back then, and monument valley was the face of the moon (or Mars if you watch the movie John Carter). Even though it has the power to create storms as it flies, apparently it doesn't decide to do it that often in Arizona. The performance was done with much less of a puppetry focus than the other beasts as it was performed with a guy in a Green Man suit holding a large eagle head outstretched to give it height to Redmayne's acting.

From the book: "The Thunderbird is so sensitive to supernatural danger that wands created with its feathers have been known to fire curses preemptively."

Harry Potter

"Are you a seeker?" Newt responds that he is more of a chaser, in a reference to quidditch, as he seems to have confused which Wizarding World reference book this movie is based on (there's another book that is Quidditch Through the Ages). Some of the creatures like house elves, gobblins and even the niffler are referenced in the Harry Potter books, as well as Grindewald's relationship with Dumbledore. Scamander and the sisters mention "school" around Kowolsky who asks about schools for wizards. Scamander mentions that he went to school at Hogwarts, who he claims is the best wizarding school (I believe he also mentions that he was asked to leave), and the sisters claim their American school is better. There is an deleted scene where the sisters sing their school song in a scene that is nice but a bit too long and would be annoying in the context of the movie. Scamander alludes in the scene of school talk that he was in love with Leta Lestrange family, and another member (although she married into the family) Bellatrix Lestrange is featured in the Harry Potter books as a key lieutenant for Voldemort (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the movies). For more connections between this movie and the Harry Potter books and movies, go to the Harry Potter Wiki and get a life, nerd.

Yeti

I was intrigued my an entry in the Fantastic Beasts book about the Yeti that mentioned that there is a task force of wizards in the Himalayas there to protect people from the Yeti and to protect the secrecy of the Yeti. I have written a short story about this task force set a few years before the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It is more of a character study of the wizards that would be sent to such a remote place and a little world building of the magical "monastery" in the mountains and their prophetic Book of Cards used for tracking the Yeti and the dangers that could come to it. And as the wizards that come to the task force aren't the highest of skill or the most desirable men of character, it turns out that Book of Cards is not as reliable as they would hope. More on the Yeti and the task force to protect it will be coming in mid-May!

Letterboxd review and Movie of the Month list.

Next Month (May): The Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

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