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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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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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