By Preston Wilder
Someone with time on their hands (not me) ought to write a paper making the link between cat videos and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a projected five films written by J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. The connection goes something like this. The internet is the greatest mass communication tool ever devised, but we lack meaningful content that we wish to communicate so instead we share popular cat videos; similarly, the author behind the most successful franchise of all time now has the opportunity to create a world full of wizardly lore and magical creatures – but she lacks meaningful content (i.e. a plot) to communicate through that world, so instead we get … this.
There’s another way in which Fantastic Beasts is quite similar to cat videos, namely that it’s rife with quirky animals doing cute things. When we first meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) he’s an Englishman in 1920s New York, toting a mysterious case that throbs and bulges intriguingly. The bottomless bag has a Muggle setting, so its contents appear innocuous if it’s opened by a human, but of course we know better – though what actually escapes from the bag, once Newt tracks it down, turns out to be an adorable platypus, albeit with a not-so-adorable passion for gold and other valuables. Then again, all you have to do is tickle its belly and the shiny trinkets are released, so it’s adorable again.
That greedy little darling is known as a niffler, one of many FBs that populate the film (FB standing for ‘Fantastic Beast’, not Facebook, though Facebook is indeed an excellent place to find cat videos). A graphorn is large and equine, with squid-like tentacles growing out of its chin. A bowtruckle is a green stick-insect, the one belonging to Newt being rather shy though also rather sassy (at one point, it blows a raspberry and is gently reprimanded by our hero: “Now, that’s beneath you”). Mooncalves look slightly like Minions, with similar bulging eyes. An occamy is a snake/gryphon hybrid with silver eggs. And so on.
The menagerie of assorted beasts for kids to spot (and hopefully collect) recalls Jurassic Park, just as “obliviation” – what the magic community does to Muggles who know too much – recalls the memory-wiping neuralyzers in Men in Black. The film picks and chooses from the blockbuster playbook, adding a mildly dotty Englishness that’s a selling-point in itself: Redmayne, with his tartan scarf and unruly mop of hair, looks like an Oxbridge post-grad (or a young Doctor Who), and his unflappable eccentricity shades into zaniness. “What we need is an insect – any kind of insect – and a teapot,” he explains when a creature runs amuck, as if asking for a needle and thread.
I still haven’t mentioned the best part, an unlikely romance between a fey, good-natured telepath (played by Alison Sudol) and a portly, increasingly poleaxed New Yorker (Dan Fogler) that’s charming from beginning to end (“You bake, honey?…”). But I also haven’t mentioned the worst part, viz. a thin plot leading, inevitably, to the most tedious convention of today’s blockbusters – the effects-laden climax with a monster wreaking havoc in a big city. It’s even more tedious in this case because the ‘monster’ (glimpsed as a whoosh of black cloud around a furious face) is a minor character, an angry adolescent we neither know nor care about – though of course it’s impossible to say who’s a minor character at this stage, Rowling presumably thinking in terms of a 10-hour grand vision. The film drops hints of an over-arching storyline (it’s a truism that Hollywood films are becoming more like TV shows, and vice versa), with Newt having once been expelled from Hogwarts – but supported in his work by Albus Dumbledore – and talk of a girl he knew at school, who was “punished for her magic”. I assume it’ll all make sense by the mid-2020s, if we’re still around by then.
Rowling has included a lot in this new world, even ideas. Newt is an environmentalist, wanting FBs to be protected rather than destroyed. The wizards and witches face a climate of fear, led by Christian-fundamentalist types called the ‘Second Salemites’ – though in fact it’s more complicated, since the Salemites are themselves often dismissed as “freaks” and the magic community has non-progressive laws in any case, forbidding inter-marriage between wizards and Muggles (here called ‘No-Majes’). There’s enough to suggest that Fantastic Beasts could go in a bold direction someday – but this first instalment is a mixed bag, lovely bits and pieces around a central emptiness only half-filled with beasties. Blockbuster culture is increasingly content-free, designed to mark time while getting to the next bit in the franchise – though the film is patchily enjoyable, and certainly better than a cat video. Except the one where that kitten watched itself in the mirror. That was so cute.
DIRECTED BY David Yates
STARRING Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell
US/UK 2016 133 mins