In the 1980’s, singer and actress, Olivia Newton-John made a big splash with her song, Magic. Perhaps you will remember that it starts like this:
You Have to Believe in Magic
You have to believe we are magic
Nothing can stand in our way
You have to believe we are magic
Don’t let your aim ever stray
And if all your hopes survive
Your destiny will arrive
I’ll bring all your dreams alive
In 2007, almost thirty years after Newton-John’s hit song, J.K. Rowling announced that she was finished writing about Harry Potter. And why shouldn’t she be? Her seven book series on the wizard and his magical world had become the world’s best-selling compilation in publishing history. Each book has had a popular movie based on it. In the years since her last Potter back, she has written four fictional books under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Of course, none of them could have reached the acclaim or commercial success of her Potter books.
Hoping again to “bring all your dreams alive to you,” In 2016, Rowling decided to take another dip into the world of Magic and created the prequel to the world of Harry Potter with a book and film this year called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. According to information released by the movie’s producer, Warner Brothers Pictures, at least four more sequels are planned. Like her other creations, we may presume that there will also be an accompanying book early each year and then a movie released around Thanksgiving.
But, does Fantastic Beasts succeed in re-creating the Potter Magic? I had a yearning to find out. I could not resist that question or the spell of the persistent movie trailers on TV, so I took my wife to see Beasts in its opening Thanksgiving weekend in Richmond, Virginia. My wife has read all the Potter books and, I believe, seen several of the corresponding movies. I enjoyed reading the first three books and liked all four of the movies I saw. At their best my wife and I both think that the books and movies have been successful because they capture the charm of and chemistry of a community of teens who are turning to young adults by using their newly acquired skills to battle the dark forces. The series has constructed a basic unity of purpose through well-constructed and compelling plots. Although the series originally appeared like it was targeted for children, it quickly became clear that Rowling was trying to appeal to all ages. All three of my daughters, who were then in middle or high school, read all the books and saw several of the movies at special costumed midnight openings. Therefore, it was probably clear-thinking for Rowling to have reasoned that the children who were crazy about Harry Potter would want a grown-up version of the world that existed before the great wizard. Time will tell if her last creative endeavor will pay off.
On the plus side, Fantastic spends most of the movie introducing the characters and settings, and Beasts that the future books and movies will inhabit. If you are willing to sit through such a didactic movie in hopes that you will better understand what comes later, then, by all means, go and see it. The special creatures and the settings are so spectacular, that they should be viewed in 3D. The animation and cinematography are eye-popping as they switch back and forth between tones of black and white and astonishing color. The lead role of Newt, which is well-played by Eddie Redmayne. However, he looks like he is learning about his character as the movie progresses in hopes that he will get it down for the later films of the series. Redmayne was the best possible choice for the lead because he looks like Harry Potter would probably look like as an adult. Other characters in the film are likable, but not very developed yet. They include an Auror in the Magical Congress, played by co-star, Katherine Waterson); Kowalsky, a bumbling, but likable baker wanna-be and friend of Newt; and a magical and mind-reading 1920’s flapper.
Other than the above-mentioned positive features, the first Fantastic Beasts movie is disappointing if you are hoping to see a complete film. However, it is highly successful as a two-hour trailer, that you will pay for to get a preview of the movies to come. Overall, the first version of Beasts is not Fantastic; it lacks the powerful Magic and the electric chemistry that we remember experiencing in the principal characters that millions and millions of viewers around the world relished in the Potter movies. The dialogue is a somewhat hard to understand and the plot too similar to the ones we saw in the earlier films. The main storyline is that Newt Scamander has been expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which you might remember is somewhere outside of London, England. He brings his suitcase full of mischievous and fun-loving beasts to New York in the 1920’s, for the purpose of releasing them to their freedom in the Grand Canyon so they can be free to practice magic. If that makes sense to you, please write me and explain it to me. Other sub-plots also don’t seem to make sense. For example, how could Kowalski remember to bake creatures in the shape of the Fantastic Beasts after his memory of them was obliviated? If you have ever seen any other movies, you might guess that the mischievous Beasts will certainly get into lots of trouble and resistance from the Magic Congress and from the evil forces before Newt can get them to where he thinks they belong. Before being able to carry out this puzzling goal, Scamander and his beasts interact with some of the darkest characters of the 1920’s in New York. Although the movie is a throwback to this well-known period from one-hundred years ago, Rowling takes advantage of many of the popular trends of 2016 culture. Its themes and settings shift between the jazz-age world of The Great Gatsby, Ghostbusters, and the latest zombie movies. If one really cares to look for some adult issues hidden in the layers of spectacular effects and gimmicks in this over-simplified movie, they might find them centered on the evils of corrupted power, prejudice, and censorship. But, it’s hard for me to give credence to the issues of a society that has an agency, like the Magical Congress, that is trying to deny the existence of Magic, while magical forces are systematically destroying their city in front of their eyes. As interesting as the visual effects are, they do not save this movie. Making the monsters more vivid and compelling than the movie’s other characters does not compensate for the cold truth that fails to engage adults in the storyline or create a community that we care about. It also does not connect us enough with the powerful traditions that Rowling established in her previous movies. I can’t imagine that today’s or tomorrow’s youth will believe in her new Beast franchise as much as they have done for Harry Potter. But, perhaps, if they really want to believe in Magic, they might enjoy this movie.