This time of year isn’t a treat for everyone. Not all of us get our thrills jostling other assholes to buy $100 TVs or $30 toaster ovens. Not all of us want to celebrate just how far we can stretch a dollar on shit we don’t really need. When you wife puts in double shifts for the seasonal button and zipper sale, there is little family. And there is no place to put up Christmas lights when you live in a basement apartment. The one time I tried it, the upstairs neighbors stepped on all the bulbs, then a cat ate the broken glass and puked blood up all over our doormat. And then I chased the cat while it was still puking and slipped and landed face first in shards and plasma.
Many of us are forgotten in the frenzy of conspicuous consumerism and increased demand for electricity. For a dwindling few, the holidays are not about gadgets or gatherings, but instead a time to celebrate something deeper. It’s about reflecting on the events of the past year, on how we’ve grown and changed as we approach that day when we can throw out the fucking kitten calendar we’re sick of and start in on twelve months of wiener dogs in sweaters. This is a time to imagine the possibilities a clean, blank new year offers, to look into the crystal ball of our potential, and then recoil in horror, crawl deep inside a bottle in hopes of forgetting how we’ve hemmed ourselves into lives of insignificance and misery, a mortality in which we forestall our inevitable deaths two hours at a time at the movies.
Somewhere past the sixteenth Pabst and the second pint of Old Mariner vodka there is a place called home, where the blackness recedes and we enter a warm, comfortable spot, not just because we’ve pissed our pants, but because all the sharp knives of disappointment have been dulled by liquor. The narrowed eyes of judgmental relatives blur, the waves of failure stop crashing overhead, and all you can manage to think about is that somewhere deep inside you is the secret of human flight. You just need to dig for it. And then you can travel anywhere, travel the world, and shit on your enemies from overhead and make them sorry.
Also, Mrs. Filthy is a little looser with her purse strings around the holidays. She enjoys celebrating alone with felting projects, Martha Stewart magazines and writing Christmas cards without me because our philosophies regarding them are different. She sees it as a way to spread joy, I see it as a means to shame neighbors and settle old scores. So this time of year, I find myself with money and a ride to the movies so long as I promise not to be picked up for six to eight hours. That’s enough time to see a movie, make fun of stupid-looking kids in the food court and then running away from stupid-looking kids throwing tater tots.
In the first of what is sure to be many movies this winter, I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This isn’t a bad movie, and it’s got plenty of the imagination that made the Harry Potter movies stand above the typical young adult horseshit, but it ultimately has little to do with the monsters or the finding in the name.
Somewhere in the nerd culture of Harry Potter, there is a thin book by the same title as this movie. It’s a very brief encyclopedia of magical creatures and where they live. No plot, just information to accompany the novels. But in Hollywood fashion, that sliver has been conflated, bloated like a corpse in a lake, and mutated until it fills not only 133 minutes here but also, apparently, four more movies to come. The movie has nothing to do with where to find fantastic beasts and everything to do with Hollywood formula. Fucking greedy, scaredy-cat grassfuckers. There’s a million great stories looking for outlets and those bastards would rather sink a billion dollars on this property.
A magical creature zoologist (Eddie Redmayne) travels from England to flapper-era New York with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts, which are banned in the United States. His mission is to release a humongous bird to its native home in Arizona, but he doesn’t get past Manhattan before his mischievous monsters escape.
Although there’s a good, fun story in this, it doesn’t have the legs to last five movies. Instead, the fantastic beasts are an excuse to introduce a new master villain a la Voldemort, and rope a reluctant, awkward hero into in an epic, multi-movie battle. Yes, this story was done pretty fucking well already with the Harry Potter movies, and poorly with virtually every comic book movie.
This good versus evil story nearly throttles the joy out of Fantastic Beasts. The animals themselves are pretty fucking cool, like a treasure-pilfering platypus, a giant oversexed, glowing rhino and iridescent birdsnakes. They’d be fun to spend time with in a lark, a silly addition to the Harry Potter anthology. But this movie, like a sad clown at closing time, wants to be taken way too seriously.
Instead, the creatures are the comic relief, occasionally and not very smoothly integrated with the overly dark and self-serious plot of a Nazi-looking bad wizard who is a witch-supremacist seeking to take over the American witching world and make the humans pay. In a reversal, the English have to save the U.S.’s ass, but only just enough right now for them to have to do it four more times before this series is over.
Once the grim narrative takes over for the fantastic beasts, the story is left with a shitload of stereotypes that were avoided so nicely in the Potter movies, and that embarrass J. K. Rowling . There’s the fat comic relief (Dan Fogler), the outcast heroine trying to prove herself (Katherine Waterson), and the very, very scowly authority (Colin Farrell). The role and outcome of each is never in doubt. There are plenty more obvious characters thrown in, but only to establish their presence for the next nine hours of movies.
With the outcome predetermined, I waited through boring conflicts for glimpses of the interesting creatures and for flashes of cleverness that bridled against the typical plot. There are two identical suitcases at the start and we know they will get switched, but Rowling knows we know, and teases us nicely. There is a far more interesting world inside of the zoologist’s suitcase than is on display outside.
There is a subplot about an anti-witch league that is flat-out tedious and lifesucking, especially since we all know one of them will secretly be a witch. Also one of them looks distractingly like Buster Keaton, but is way less amusing. Farrell’s authoritarian character is no Snape. There is no gray area. He comes across as evil and he is, without surprise. The movie’s final battle is okay, but not nearly as imaginative as any climax in the Potter series. It feels more like the ending of a Marvel Comic movie based on a lesser character and starring Ben Affleck.
There is little joy in the Three Finger Fantastic Beasts, nothing like I can find in a bottle. Instead, it’s the B-sides, the unreleased tracks of a once great band, packaged into a box set and put up for sale just in time for Christmas, when people look for excuses to spend their money.