GUEST CRITIC #17: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
As busy I get from time to time, I find that I can't see every movie under the sun, leaving my friends and colleagues to fill in the blanks for me. As poetically as I think I wax about movies on this website as a wannabe critic, there are other experts out there. Sometimes, it inspires me to see the movie too and get back to being my circle's go-to movie guy. Sometimes, they save me $9 and you 800+ words of blathering. In a new review series, I'm opening my site to friend submissions for guest movie reviews.
TODAY'S CRITIC IS A PRO
I'm calling in the big guns for this latest "Guest Critic" entry. The man you will read tonight is full-fledged fellow film critic with his own podcast. Fancy pants! Meet Blaine Grimes, a new Oklahoma resident by way of Texas. I became social media acquaintances through another Texan, friend of the page and all-round critic himself, Tim Day of "Day at the Movies." We have enjoyed following each other's work and pestering Tim Day every since.
Professionally, Blaine Grimes is a producer of the Reel World: Rewind podcast for Reel World Theology. He currently teaches English courses at a couple of universities, and he loves to write about film whenever has the the opportunity. Aside from watching, talking, and writing about movies, Blaine enjoys reading (about movies more often than not), board-gaming, and nerding-out in various and sundry ways. For example, just say the word and he will gladly get into a heated debate about why Superman is the greatest superhero of all time (no argument from me, the man is right). He also has a real soft spot for introspective Cold War spy literature. Follow him on Twitter and see Blaine’s Work at Reel World Theology.
MR. GRIMES'S REVIEW
For an entire generation of avid fans who grew up in an era that saw annual (or at least semi-annual) installments in the Harry Potter universe and have since endured the painfully long five-year void left after "The Deathly Hallows — Part 2" premiered all the way back in 2011, David Yates’s return to the wizarding world with the Rowling-penned "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," is an almost indescribably joyous occasion—the cinematic equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast, minus the annoying relatives. "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," the first entry in a project five-film series, hauled in an impressive $75 million at the domestic box office over the weekend, and while the numbers seems to indicate that the film has recaptured the magic and wonder of the original franchise, the truth is a little more complicated. Yates and Rowling haven’t simply resurrected an old formula and cast the same old spells with "Fantastic Beasts;" they have, instead, created something of a different creature entirely.
Perhaps the most readily apparent difference is that Beasts transports us across the pond to pre-Potter New York in 1926. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the future author of the fictitious book from which the film derives its title, arrives on American shores toting a magical suitcase filled with a menagerie of bizarre creatures. Before he is able to settle into his new surroundings, however, one of his fantastic beasts—the mischievous, kleptomaniac Niffler—escapes, leading him on a chase that causes him to cross paths and accidentally switch cases with a No-Maj (the American slag for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Together, the two become embroiled in a much larger and more sinister plot involving the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and the Auror, Perceval Graves (Colin Farrell).
There’s a very real sense in which "Fantastic Beasts" seems to be primarily aimed at fans who read and watched "Harry Potter" as young children and have since grown up. For one, it unflinchingly takes us into a more mature kind of thematic darkness and unsettling territory than the majority of the Potter films. One narrative thread follows Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the leader of a group called the Second Salemers, which seeks to exterminate all witches and wizards. Her methods are as detestable as her goals: She adopts children in order to recruit them into her propaganda machine, forcing them to hand out tracts each day and beating them for any perceived offense. It’s utterly devoid of any of the levity associated with the Potter-Dursley relationship we’ve seen in earlier films. And if this is not weighty enough, there is another subplot that explores what happens to children who are forced into suppressing their magical inclinations.
It turns out that 1920s America is not a very safe time or place to be a witch or wizard. Unlike the majority of magical communities, we learn that relationships and fraternization between the magical and No-Majs are strictly prohibited. Enforcing this law is MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America), which is led by Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and her team of Aurors, who hunt dark wizards. If all of this feels like a lot to take in, rest assured that it is; and indeed "Fantastic Beasts"’s most significant flaw is that it is so busy introducing this very new wizarding community that we never feel like we’re more than a tourist on a short visit. (Thankfully there are at least four more movies to remedy that ailment.) But the important thing—a major feat in its own right—is that Rowling and Yates bring to life a very interesting world that is worth returning to in subsequent films.
And while there are plenty of laughs, lighter moments replete with kid-friendly fare, and even a couple of opportunities for tears (Redmayne’s performance, by the way, is quite good—and I am usually not a fan.), overall Fantastic Beasts feels like it embodies what Rowling’s books did so well upon their initial release in growing up alongside its fanbase. It’s a full-bodied blockbuster with plenty of subtext that is (unfortunately) remarkably relevant in a day and age where our President-Elect is known for the kind of vitriolic speech and exclusionary immigration policies that feel like they would be right at home in Rowling’s 1920s magical community. In the end, then, Newt Scamander has arrived just in time, his infectious optimism reminding us that hope is not lost. And ultimately, "Fantastic Beasts" doesn’t simply reclaim or recapture the magic; it shows us that the magic never died in the first place.
In the second of maybe a few more guest takes on "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," I thank Blaine Grimes for hopping on another website to share his full review. I highly recommend his thoughtful and skillful work as a film critic. Give that gentleman a follow and a like on social media. You won't regret his content. The door, sir, to return is always open.
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