Friday, February 3, 2017

Fabulous Beasts

This is a light-weight, somewhat spoiler-y review of "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them"
I watched this earlier this January, with my daughter, and had hoped to see it a second time before attempting to review it, but came up short on time--so this is the light, bubble-gum review, with something fussier and more analytical lurking in the wings for a possible later appearance.

The Kiddo and I have a long mutual history of sharing our Harry Potter-related joys, though right now, in her twenties, she's a bit off on the entire thing. By the end of the first saga, she found the vast canon a bit burdensome, and I do not blame her. She enjoyed Fantastic Beasts, though. We both did. Where the original HP books were designed to track through the maturation of the readers, growing more adult at roughly the rate it's original child-readers did, Fantastic Beasts is a story that, from the very start, aims at adults, if comparatively young adults. The difference is a blessing, if only because the first series succeeded in carrying not only its characters but its world out of the realm of child fantasy, and into something more challenging and mature. What started with an eleven-year-old's idea of bliss, with magic and all the best foods you like and chocolate frogs and best chums, landed in the end exactly where J.K. Rowling intended it, with questions of race and war and loyalty and strength in the face of evil, carried out at a level that addressed adult fears...not perfectly, but sufficiently well to deserve its laurels. To go back to the chipper, sweet, and twee elements of early HP would have been a let-down.

Interior of Newt's Tardis-y Suitcase of Holding

Fantastic Beasts starts at roughly one stage beyond the maturity point that Deathly Hallows left off--with young adult characters of the right age to be facing their first truly, completely adult challenges. They've found their first jobs. They've become independent of school and family. They are getting by in the grownup world. They at the age to become warriors by choice. Harry Potter and his friends were drafted into the great saga of their era almost from birth. Newt Scamander, Porpentina and Queenie Goldstein, and their no-maj (muggle/non-magical) associate Jacob Kowalski, are all people who appear to have faced challenges already, and who look likely to face more.

That impression is only strengthened by the details of time and place. A story set in 1926 in New York City suggests major catastrophes to come, in both the non-wizarding world and the magical realms. Knowing what's to come, feeling the advancing elements that will lead to the Depression and WWII on the non-magical side of the story, and to the war with Grindelwald on the otherside, blends well with the cold, grey, murky feel of the New York City setting and the strong awareness of New York as a teaming center for immigration...and for social pressures.

The translation of that tension to the Wizarding World assumptions did not work perfectly, coming into its own only when Jacob's memories must be wiped at the end. Until then, in spite of repeated reminders of the barriers put up between the Magical Congress of the United States of America and the non-magical world, it's easy to get wrapped up in the joy of Newt's escaped beasts, the Christmas-y sparkle of the New York of a prior age, and the Dickensian hints of darker elements in the New Salem Philanthropic Society's leader and starveling children. And, yes--all of that ties to an embedded bigotry on both sides of the magical divide. But it remains true--somehow it's easy to take all that lightly until our mages steal Jacob's memories from him.

Jacob Kowalski, the Wizarding World's first muggle leading character.
That edge, though, is part of what made Fantastic Beasts a joy to watch. It had the familiar elements we know, and it's clearly part of a continuity we've had laid out previously. It's canon, for sure. But it's canon from a fresh, new, and decidedly more adult position from the very beginning.

That could have been a wretched bore: Harry Potter by Kafka. However, the world still sparkles, the beasts truly were fantastic and lovable, and the new characters were easy to love without so much as a backward glance at Harry, Ron, and Hermione, or Dumbledore and Hagrid. Daughter-mine and I liked Newt, and the Goldstein sisters, and most of all we loved non-maj Jacob, the first non-maj to have a real central-character role in any of the HP books. There are times when a nice, heavy dose of foreshadowing is a comfort, and the near-certainty of Jacob's eventual return from amnesia and exile is one of those times: Jacob is a pip, to use the words of my grandfather. A pip and a peach, and a real mensch.

The plot itself was a bit simple and frail--but so what? For a change it's a story about laying the foundation for other stories. It was just big enough and heavy enough to take care of that start-up business in one move. Given Rowling's inclination to expanding mass, it was good to see she had learned from seeing her own novels pared down to screenplays, and understood the burden a feature film can realistically carry. She kept it short, comparatively simple, and she didn't break her heart over the kind of fuss one can admire--but that the story does not need. She got the job done, with fun and grace, and presented a great stage to introduce a new saga and a new cast.

New Heroes

So. The kid and I were happy. We will watch the next one, praying for Jacob to show up soon to look at Queenie with lingering sighs, and that Newt will remain charming and dedicated to his beasts, and that Tina and Queenie will shine as brightly with intelligence and sororal love, sisters to the end, different though they are.

Will it be as popular and successful as the original Harry Potter stories and movies? Hard to say. Those were a unique phenomenon. But even if she hold it together on a slightly smaller level of fannish enthusiasm, she's got a nice new entry that will let her tell very new stories in her previously developed world. That's good business for everyone, and good fun for a lot of us who just like going back to her Wizarding World again.

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