2018-11-17

Fantastic Beasts 2 Review

Last night Katie and I went to our first movie in the theater since becoming parents - we're so wild! We didn't love the first Fantastic Beasts film so didn't have very expectations for this one - and that's about what we got. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!



THE GOOD

  • There are some good visuals, which make seeing this in the theater rewarding.
  • There are some cute and funny creature moments.
  • Johnny Depp and Jude Law are fine in their roles as iconic Wizarding World characters. Neither is really exceptional but they don't really have much to work with either.
  • If tweets using #FantasticBeasts can be believed, the movie seems to be resonating with 17-year-old fangirls, so clearly some people are finding it to be a worthy entry in the franchise.
THE BAD
  • The characters are, for that most part, uninteresting. There are so many of them jam packed into the film that few of them get any development at all. 
  • As a substitute for character development there is a lot of bad, expository dialog. Tell don't show!
  • Even with all the beat-you-over-the-head explanatory dialog, the movie is messy, disjointed, and confusing. It feels like it was stitched together haphazardly instead of edited for a coherent narrative.
  • A number of things that happen in the film - from plot points to character motivations - just don't make any sense.
  • This is sometimes due to inconsistency in the "rules" of magic. The Harry Potter stories took great pains to maintain an internally consistent of the Wizarding World. In these new films it feels like magic is either omnipotent or impotent depending on what the plot calls for at the moment - and seldom in between. As a consequence there is no real tension during any of the pivotal scenes.
  • There are blatant conflicts with established Harry Potter canon.
  • As usual with David Yates, the direction is fine but just kind of paint-by-number.
  • For all of this, the film is, I hate to say, boring.

THE UGLY

  • Like The Hobbit, Fantastic Beasts 2 forces in so many unnecessary references to the previous Harry Potter installments as to detract from the film itself. I mean, really? Dumbledore teaches bogarts the exact same way Lupin (who had a different Defense Against the Dark Arts professor) would go on to teach them 70 years later? *Eye roll* These are more than subtle easter eggs; they're overt, cheap fan service.
  • The Fantastic Beasts series is supposed to expand the Wizarding World but every new character seems to be related to characters we already know. Between this and the preponderance of heavy handed references, it serves to shrink the wizarding world instead.
  • The collective effect is turning the Wizarding World into a soap opera. Who did what now? Oh no he di-idn't! So-and-so had a secret baby with whom? Oh my! Every Wizarding World piece Rowling has written since the Harry Potter novels has relied on these sorts of cheap twists - rather than epic fantasy, it's like we're watching the Jerry Springer show.
The Fantastic Beasts films feel like Rowling wanted to explore what the Wizarding World would be like outside of Britain. She did that a little more thoroughly - although not well - in the first Fantastic Beasts, set in New York. This installment is even more superficial; it is set in Paris but there isn't really any reason for it to be there other than some pretty cinematography. We don't really learn anything about the magic community in France nor do we really meet any French characters of consequence.

I would love to blame Yates but the fault here is really Rowling's. JKR has proven herself to be a fantastic author of British boarding school mystery novels disguised as fantasy but a very mediocre author of stage and film scripts of different genres about the Wizarding World outside of Hogwarts. One of Rowling's motivations is noble. I think her very homogeneous Harry Potter novels don't, in hindsight, mesh with her politics and so she is aiming to "set things right" through prequels. That's a very dangerous game, though, and I can't think of many examples besides Tolkien who ever got that right - and it took him decades of careful work to do so.

All that said, I think you have to reserve ultimate judgement on a middle film until its series is complete. Many viewers were not sold on The Empire Strikes Back when it was released and only upon the final resolution of The Return of the Jedi did they see how well Empire set up a tidy conclusion. It is possible that Rowling has a compelling, coherent narrative about Ariana Dumbledore being an Obscurus, Grindelwald taking inspiration from his big fight with the Dumbledores which motivates him to use Credence as a weapon, etc. but it is hard for me to imagine a anything very satisfying at this point - and especially something that doesn't break all the canon from 70 years later. But we shall see!

At the end of the day this is a pretty, messy, boring film that tries to expand the Wizarding World but actually shrinks it. There are some fun moments and it is worth seeing once by any Potterhead but I probably won't see it again.

1 comment:

Bryan Hassin said...

The more I think about it, the more vexed I am by the tendency to overpower characters in this series. Whatever powers some characters need they seem to have because . . . the plot demands it. Examples: Grindelwald has whatever he needs to break out of jail, quasi-imperius entire populations, generate fire that kills enemies but lets in friends, etc. Nicolas Flamel, old and decrepit, who has devoted his entire life to alchemy, suddenly leads the charge to contain powerful dark magic.

The most egregious example, though, is Newt himself. He is supposed to be this bookish magizoologist but he seems to be extremely adept at dueling, combating dark magic, and whatever else he needs whenever he needs it such that he is an international spy sent around at the bidding of Dumbledore. This is incoherent characterization and it weakens any tension in the films; you never feel that he is in any real danger. Collectively, this tendency to OP so many characters reduces the stakes of any conflict. As Syndrome said in The Incredibles, when everyone is Super then no one is.

A much more interesting story would be to leave Newt as this bookish magizoologist who relates to fantastic beasts much better than he does to other wizards. He is already teamed up with aurors so let them be the warriors, leaving Newt to use his wits and his magic bag o' beasts to get out of sticky situations in which a wand alone would be insufficient (as he did when they were trapped in Kama's basement).

This way neither Newt alone nor the aurors alone can achieve the goal; they have to team up to make it work. Teaming up presents a major challenge for Newt, who doesn't work well with other humans, so we get to see an arc of development and growth out of him. Instead we get Newt and . . . a bunch of superfluous side characters who don't make any difference and no real character arcs. It's a missed opportunity.