Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: a supernatural Stonewall
REVIEW by DREW ROWSOME
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fine romp of a film, lots of adventure, CGI monsters, comedy and action. And it will somewhat satisfy those whose Harry Potter cravings need assuaging. But, like all the best young adult books/movies and b-movies in general, it is the subtext/message that makes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them remarkable.
Author and first time screenplay writer, JK Rowling is very clever. Regardless of one's opinion of the literary quality of the Harry Potter series, it was utterly engaging, addictive and extraordinarily plotted. That the stratospheric success of the series didn't go to Rowlings' head and she has remained a dedicated philanthropist, feminist, LGBT rights activist and a thorn in the side of all Trumpians and Twitter trolls, is already a feat. That she fuses her concerns into a summer blockbuster is simply audacious and admirable.
The premise of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that North America, not as civilized as Europe (Rowlings is, alas, a bit of an Anglophile), contains a magical community that is in constant friction with the "No-Majs." The spectre of the Salem witch hunts is mentioned and the allusion to the US's fraught race relations history is deliberate. Into this tense atmosphere - there is a evil No-Maj hating wizard on the loose and something is leaving a trail of destruction through 1920s New York - wanders Newt Scamander, a magizoologist, with a suitcase full of magical creatures.
Of course the creatures escape on occasion and hilarity ensues. This surface layer of the film is quite entertaining and Eddie Redmayne as Scamander is wide-eyed and likable enough to keep the audience firmly in his corner. Who doesn't agree with an ecological message? The scenes inside his briefcase where he stores, and the audience gets to meet, the many creatures are vividly realized and like a trip to an intergalactic magical zoo. He even gets a charming sidekick, a mini-Groot, who gets the kids to root for what remains of the rain forest.
And a budding romance between No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, Tony Award winner for playing William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and the psychic, and out-of-his-league beautiful, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), takes care of the tolerance metaphor with the bonus of Semitic references in the names.
Only tenuously connected is the plot that concerns the grown-ups. The evil energy energetically destroying New York turns out to be an Obscurus, which is a parasite that grows within magical children if they suppress their powers. That is as blatant a metaphor for the oppressiveness of the closet as can be imagined. Watching Clarence Barebone (a subdued but still compelling Ezra Miller) contain his abilities before exploding in a rage-fuelled rampage is agonizing. And a powerful argument for young audiences.
There are hints and clues throughout from a sneering reference to Scamander's special relationship with Dumbledore (who we now know to be gay) and a mating dance to entice an Erumpant (and yes, that is the name, I looked it up). Watching Redmayne, an Academy Award winning actor, slap himself on the ass while uttering gutteral cries of enticement, is enough on its own to make a viewing of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them worthwhile.
But what makes the metaphor explicitly gay is the character Percival Graves played by the broodingly handsome and charming Colin Farrell. The plot hinges on Graves investigating and trying to stop the Obscurus so, no spoilers here. But it is impossible not to cite the scene, in an alley no less, where Graves literally seduces Barebone in an attempt to get information. It is a frighteningly accurate depiction of the evil done by gay conversion advocates or religious figures loving the sinner but hating the "sin."
Of course one cheers for the monsters, the id, as destruction is always more fun. The Obscura itself is a bit of a letdown, the black swirling clouds are not as dramatic as the more recognizable creatures, but there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had in watching gay rage unleashed, a supernatural Stonewall.
Whether the rest of the films, of course it is a series, will be as politically gratifying remains to be seen but, with Rowlings in charge and the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child containing an equally blatant gay subtext, I have high hopes. And if not, this was one of the few times when an excessive amount of CGI didn't push me out of the story. Being a blockbuster, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is meticulously made, visually stunning, and goes well with popcorn. That it is so delightfully subversive (or is gay now the mainstream?) is the bonus that makes it a work of art.