December 3rd 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Anti-discrimination law validates Safe Schools

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs on the way out, but her weapon (18C) must go too

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump White House

EDITORIAL Trump portends the start of a new political era

EUTHANASIA Late-night reprieve in SA Parliament

EAST ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwan and Japan look extinction in the face

SEXUAL POLITICS Victorian Liberals pledge to scrap Safe Schools

LAW AND SOCIETY No-fault divorce a tragedy of nuclear proportions

PARENTING Experts envisage lustrous future for infant graduates

POLITICAL HISTORY Folly with a touch of good sense: Colonel Sibthorp

ECONOMICS Trump as a symptom of the end of neoliberalism

MUSIC Vale Leonard: did we ever really understand you?

CINEMA Fantastical and beastly: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

BOOK REVIEW A Life well spent

BOOK REVIEW Catholic revisals

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS How the left whitewashed Fidel Castro

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CINEMA
Fantastical and beastly: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, December 3, 2016

J.K. Rowling established a vast alternate imagined reality with her Harry Potter stories. The focus of those books, and their movie adaptations, was Harry Potter and his ongoing battles with the fearsome Dark Lord Voldemort.

But, while those stories count as the centrepiece of that universe, there is much more to its imagined reality. Snippets and glimpses of this are to be found throughout the stories, and in Rowling’s later shorter pieces, but until recently there was nothing substantial.

Then came the stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And now there is the movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set decades before the rise of Voldemort and taking place on the other side of the world from Harry’s adventures in a Magical 1920s America.

It is 1926 and the wizarding world is under threat from Gellert Grindelwald. Unlike Voldemort, who was principally concerned with conquering death and his own ego, Grindelwald believed that the Magical should rule the world. He is ruthless and charming and immensely powerful, and the movie opens with his disappearance, which throws the wizarding world into a state of emergency.

Into the fray wanders Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist and minor official in the British Ministry of Magic, who’s working on his textbook about magical creatures – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He arrives in New York City with a mission of his own and a collection of Fantastic Beasts in his suitcase.

Newt is an endearing, if awkward, sort who gets along better with animals than people and can be a little absent-minded. He’s wandering around the city when he comes across a meeting of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, led by Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a fanatical and intolerant group that not only believes witches and wizards are real, but wants to wipe them out.

Unfortunately one of Newt’s creatures escapes. It’s a niffler, a sort of cross between a mole and a platypus that likes shiny things and can keep a considerable amount in its pouch. It has found its way into a bank where it runs around discreetly snuffling up everything it can find. In pursuing it, Newt meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj, or non-magical person – what the English call a Muggle.

Kowalski is hoping to get a loan to open a bakery, but his case ends up switched with Newt’s, leading to the escape of more of the beasts, injuring him in the process. Newt, in turn, is picked up by Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced investigator for MACUSA (Magical Congress of USA). Meanwhile, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Head of Magical Security, is investigating a series of unexplained, destructive events that look to be of magical origin. So Newt, Kowalski, Tina, and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), team up to recapture the creatures.

Fantastic Beasts is a visually stunning film, depicting a world both familiar and strange – a little like Newt’s creatures – with a setting that combines a Hollywoodised Roaring Twenties with the magic of the Harry Potter stories. While the Harry Potter stories took their lead from schooldays stories of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, here we are treated to more of an adult screwball comedy caper, albeit with a darker theme, one that becomes more apparent as the film goes on.

This is Rowling’s first screenplay and it has the unenviable task of being both a stand-alone story and the introductory stage setting for a five-film series. The movie is engaging and delightful in many ways – particularly the naughty little niffler – but there is a sense that maybe it would have been better as a novel first, or as a high-budget television series, giving Rowling more room to breathe and explore.

Central to Rowling’s work are the twin themes of intolerance and the abuse of power. Grindelwald is a “magical fascist” who believes that wizards should rule, rather than hide, and who justifies his atrocities as being “for the greater good”. Mary-Lou not only hates the magical, but abuses and exploits her adopted children for her own ends.

MACUSA, under President Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), is ruthless and brutal in its enforcement of wizard law, and press baron Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) uses his newspapers to influence the country. This is contrasted with the gentleness and decency of Newt and Jacob in particular, while still showing that Newt’s creatures are themselves powerful and potentially dangerous.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a bittersweet movie; one that shows that despite her idealism, Rowling knows the world is more complicated. It is an enjoyable romp that points to an interesting future.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).




























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