By Ciaran “Gingey” Monaghan
[This article contains some spoilers for the events of the film]
I recently went to my local theatre to see Eddie Redmayne’s most recent audition to be cast as the next Doctor Who Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I have plenty of feelings.
In statistics, the concept of standard deviation is used by statistics to describe, when given an average figure, what this reflects in the original data. It tells you how much the data points deviate from the number given. Let me explain. If you told me that the average age of the people in a room was 30, that could mean either that the people in that room were young professionals attending an office Christmas party, all of whom were around 30, or that the people in that room were a collection of grandparents minding very young children (while their parents were at a Christmas Party). Both would have an average of 30, but the latter would have a higher standard deviation because all of the ages in the room were far from 30. I would give this film a 5 out of 10, with a standard deviation of “Jesus Christ” because that’s what happens when you average the scores of every decision made, all of which are 100 or 0.
Here’s the thing: If I heard it described in broad strokes, or read about the film from a Wikipedia article, I would like it, because the major details are all brilliant.
First of all, I love having a hero who’s nervous, nurturing and neurotic. Our leading man’s got more ticks than a clock with Lyme disease. It’s so refreshing to have a hero who can’t look people in the eye, who never raises his voice, and who spends most of his time caring rather than combating. It’s especially nice to have a hero like this whose growth throughout the films doesn’t force or compel him to change. Within the story, all of Newt’s friends and acquaintances love him the way he is and admire his capacity for compassion. I do too. I may have made fun of Redmayne a little in the opening line, but I genuinely enjoy watching him as Newt. The actor who plays him in his childhood here also deserves a major shout out for nailing the mannerisms so perfectly. I love the cast in general. The first film’s team of Newt, Jacob, Tina and Queenie are one of my favourite ensemble casts in film for a long time.
Secondly, Grindelwald is a much better and timelier villain than Voldemort ever was. It’s compelling to see a villain who wins followers from normal people with the power of persuasion and rhetoric, as opposed to Voldemort who just seemed to have a cult of consummate evil, just add water and orphan blood, and no more was said. It’s compelling because that’s how real life villains work. It’s also compelling that he manages to win over a member of the main cast because he caught her at a point of vulnerability. Whether this was the best character for the writers to pick, I will come back to.
Finally, Fantastic Beasts. Those are good. They were the most underexplored and most interesting part of Harry Potter. I am a zoology graduate. I am level 26 in Pokémon Go. You have my attention.
But outside of these main pillars of the story, the details are all, well, awful. Newt gets a love triangle with the first Slytherin protagonist, a cool black lady. She dies. A Seinfeldian mix up makes both Tina and Newt think the other is romantically uninterested. Fantastic beasts appear very infrequently, and rarely organically. Queenie drugs another character and tricks him into marrying her. At the end, they forgive each other, fall in love and she joins a cult that wants to subjugate his people. I’m going to stop talking about Queenie’s behavior now because I’m getting a crick in my neck from reading italics.
What also strikes me about the film is how oddly mean-spirited bits of it are. The main character, and seemingly the film, posits that there are no strange creatures, just close-minded people. Sounds good. However all the characters who are anything less than handsome male Aryans seem to be up Shit Creek. The black and the Asian women are both doomed to suffer terrible fates. The cute tiny servant lady is an unfortunate casualty. In the first scene of the film, I noticed that a prison guard had a breathing difficulty and instantly knew he was going to be on Team Evil. I was right.
The narrative established in Harry Potter films is being cynically stretched to include every single character, location and artifact in these films. Everything has to be a contrived lead-in. Here are some of my Fantastic Beasts 3 predictions: It is revealed that the sock that Harry gives to Dobby used to belong to Aberforth Dubledore but was stolen by Madam Sprout. The Womping Willow is revealed to have been in every scene, wearing James’ invisibility cloak. Fenrir Greyback bites Walter White, giving him lung cancer.
Stepping back, it’s also disappointing that these films have to be so similar in terms of structure and theme to the Harry Potter stories. We had a chance to see another side of this world. We had a chance to have a globetrotting adventure with interesting beasts, see a wide, wide world, and meet interesting characters along the way. Instead we are getting another uprising of wizard Nazis. It’s a real shame. There’s only one thing that’s unclear: is Rowling incapable of writing any other story, or is she just unwilling to take the risk for some r€a$on?
A lot of people have likened these films to the Star Wars Prequels and I’m inclined to agree. And I don’t even hate the prequels that much. The Star Wars prequels had some really good structural ideas. That’s what makes it so frustrating.
Gingey is a cool dude currently creating a cool card game, ‘Pyramid Scheme’, with Fionn Keeley. It’ll be published someday. He’ll get back to you!!
Hear him discuss said game on our Al-Leluiarama Takeover episode, or prove his expertise on our Pokémon special.