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Film review: JK Rowling casts the right spell in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

The Harry Potter creator and director David Yates have created the perfect fantasy for the dreary times in which humanity finds itself.

Nothing and nobody really dies in fantasy cinema. That rule has seen the regeneration of seemingly long-dead franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars and the upcoming Blade Runner prequel. It was only a matter of time before JK Rowling threw her wand into the pile and revisited the evergreen story of “The Boy Who Lived”.

Taking place decades before scarred teenagers and their friends fought dark lords in the Harry Potter books and the film adaptations, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the story of Newt Scamander, a bumbling genius wizard (Eddie Redmayne). Scamander lands up in New York City of the Roaring Twenties, which is more a version of Batman’s Gotham than of rich spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Scamander is a “magizoologist”, who travels the far reaches of the Earth capturing beasts that resemble animals from the non-magical world such as rhinos, snakes, eagles but with slightly surreal peculiarities.

A few of the creatures from his magical briefcase escape into the streets of pre-Depression New York City and Scamander sets out to get them back. Along the way, he encounters Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a “no-mag” (muggle in American) and war veteran-turned-factory-worker who wants to be a baker and Tina Goldstein (Katherina Waterston), a disgraced Auror relegated to the wand permit department but desperate to get back in the good books of Madame President (Carmen Ejogo).

Meanwhile, mysterious occurrences take place throughout New York City that threaten to reveal the secrets of the magical world to the no-mag. Initial blame is directed towards Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the Dark Lord that a certain Albus Dumbledore defeated to put himself on the map. Chief Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) investigates, aided by creepy-demon child Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) both of whom are leading a crusade called Second Salemers against witches and wizards.

Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. Courtesy Warner Bros.
Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. Courtesy Warner Bros.

There are passing mentions to the eight Harry Potter films that came before; strains of the familiar Potter theme occasionally echo in the background; Albus Dumbledore is teaching at Hogwarts (or Hogwash as one of the American characters not fond of wizarding world across the pond calls it). There is just the right amount of Potter references for Fantastic Beasts to feel familiar and still not become a retread like JJ Abrams’ Star Wars reboot.

Rowling’s 2001 novel, which was written under the pseudonym Newt Scamander and which provided a basis for her screenplay, doesn’t have much of a plot and is more of a glossary of magical creatures. A movie spun out from a textbook mentioned only in passing in the books and movies could have gone drastically wrong. But aided by director David Yates (into his fifth film in the Potter franchise) and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Rowling creates an incredibly immersive world that unfolds at a leisurely pace but is never boring because it does not get bogged down by the weight of audience expectations created by adaptations of the Potter books.

Creating good fantasy requires metaphors from the real world, and Fantastic Beasts does have many. The no-mag versus the magical world storyline not only harks back to the mutant versus humans theme from the original X-Men trilogy, but also has parallels with the fear, paranoia and persecution of minorities in our fraught present. There is enough escapist entertainment, from well-staged battle sequences and signature British wit to explorations of Scamander’s never-ending suitcase (occasionally hampered by stodgy CGI), to make the film perfectly primed for the dreary times in which humanity finds itself.

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‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’.
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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.