once me and my two pals were sitting in the packed theatre and as the Warner logo came on, I was instantly taken back to the so-called end of an era, 2011. It was a pivotal year in many ways, senior year in high school, all the “real world approaching” anxiety coming up as the last Potter film was released. Now, someone whose only tattoo to date is a Deathly Hallows sign should have been over the moon with a new film, yet I wasn’t. A certain Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp taught me I shouldn’t give in to hype that easily. Some stuff threw me off, the lead — Redmayne, the setting — America, 70 years prior to the main plot which makes it feel disconnected from the Potterverse by some miles, and the need to EXPAND, MCU/DCEU style until there’s nothing other that the mainstream has to offer besides wizards and superheroes. And Transformers, yes.
All of the premature accusations seem unfair in the light of the movie itself. See, this film hasn’t transported me to 2011, as I sat down in a multiplex wearing a skimpy Bellatrix Lestrangre outfit. It actually took me way back, as I was reading the very first of the books. For the first time I didn’t know where this was headed, which proves to me that in order to pull off a satisfying prequel you’ve got to go further back in time. Even if the Star Wars prequels were decent films, they still would have suffered from the simple fact of how it all ends, or more importantly, that it Doesn’t end, that any threat isn’t imminent because, sooner or later, we’ll live happily ever after, surrounded by Ewoks and force ghosts.
Now, America as a backdrop works in the sense that our straight man, Newt — being British and already known to us — fulfils two roles. He’s our emotional core to the universe, with his lingo (“from where I’m from they’re called Muggles”) and Hogwarts favouritism. He’s also the fish out of water guy, we’re seeing America through his eyes, and it’s his clumsiness that drives the main part of the story.
I’m gonna make a claim that might seem apologetic, since I’m a big dumb Potter baby. Now, the film is often very disjointed, scenes don’t really gel together, like going from a violent revenge done by a child on an evil Mormon lady, to wacky hi-jinx with a creature in a teapot. But the film, to me at least, is exactly like Newt — clumsy and cringey yet eager to please, it seems to get awkward and take little agency in scenes between people but shines whenever the actual beasts are on screen. That’s where the real magic lies, in seeing the designs fully realised on screen, but even more importantly — in seeing the care Newt has for them.
It takes the route of Marvel films in the sense that it establishes a hundred different plots for upcoming films, so not everything resonates. Now, Marvel does it very well, but most of the time I feel a disconnect because of that, the timing of the jokes and plot delivery feels so calculated that I have fun while watching but I never revisit the films. The day after Beasts I saw a poster on my way to work and I actually teared up. I’d never expect this film to make me care so much for the characters, let alone that it would deliver an Obliviate scene with comparable emotional impact to Hermione’s parents? The film is incredibly imperfect, but as earnest as a zillion dollar franchise can get.
I expected the worst and hoped for the best with Beasts. I didn’t read many opinions, I only saw they were divided enough. And don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to hate in the film. From the need to have Another Big Bad Dude as a central threat, from a Potter equivalent of Lord of the Rings eagles as plot resolvers which raise more questions that they answer, from a gorgeous female character falling for the Family Guy dad trope, from some flat cinematography, especially in that first Jon Voight scene, from that senator plot, all the way to ending a scene in a mugging face and the fact that Johnny Depp has one line in this film and says it in an incomprehensible way. But, for the most part, it doesn’t feel like contempt for the audience — the film literally doesn’t know any better. It looks at someone like Captain America and says “people like you, don’t they? They find me annoying.”
What’s important is that the good stuff is insanely good! The Beasts look amazing and some of the best scenes feature them heavily. The characters are memorable and sweet, which in this cynical day and age is really not a given. I especially loved how it took Newt’s approach to hurt or scared animals and applied them to Ezra Miller’s character, it was set up properly and it paid off amazingly well. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing all the characters — besides goddamned Johnny Depp — in future instalments. It feels like last year’s Force Awakens, in the earnestness of emotions. It’s much more twisted and all over the place, but it’s loveable — as loveable as a fluffy Niffler on his way to steal your bling.