18 November 2016

Fantastic Worlds and Where to Build Them

The only thing this site really still does, besides post long explanations of America, is an attempt to assess the critical, commercial, and most importantly, cultural potential of every big release to hit the cinema, and there's a kind of significant one today, so let's get at it. Coming off the heels of Harry Potter, but not really is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), a magnificently soft title that ought to go through some improvements through its mind-boggling four sequels. I had next to no anticipation of this flick, despite being a big fan of the HP movies, although that's grown in the last few weeks as I've appreciated what's being done here. Let's dive into what this flick means and the effects it will have on our culture.
Also known as Pokemon GO: The Movie (2016)

I'm really torn when looking at this thing. It originates from a 128-page book by J.K. Rowling that spun off of Harry Potter, which ostensibly exists in the Harry Potter universe itself. That is, the book, as published, purported to be Harry's actual copy of the book by Newt Scamander. Rowling also wrote the screenplay herself, so any fear of credibility or world-shaking ought to be assuaged. Nice to know she's keeping busy. This makes it come across as not so much a grab at some existing property, but an extension derived from the creator herself. Of course, that always works out for prequels.

At first this seems wholly unnecessary. If the Hobbit series seemed like it was stretching its material a little thin, how in fuck is this 128-page kids' book going to become a five-film series? Also, why are five films our standard now? Remember when we had all these nice, triptych trilogies? It's maddening. Still, I've grown to be into this for a few reasons, the chief of which is that this is a champion of world-building.

I wish film series would do this more often, but this is also a simple indication of how difficult it is to set up the commonly recognized rules of a universe. Star Wars is really JUST doing this with Rogue One (2016), but it probably also has some of the most widely dispersed recognizable ephemera. The Harry Potter universe is so rich and thriving, it's actual a masterful relief to not have to focus on HP, Hermione, and all the other jackasses at Hogwarts. In fact, it's a huge breath of fresh air to journey to the New World and check out what American Wizards are like. Considering its popularity over here, it's about damn time.

The ability to take all the rules of the universe and place it in another location, another time, with different characters is kind of awesome, especially to stay consistent with a universe as full of magic as Harry Potter. It's cool to see things from another angle, especially with a cast as ripe as this. I could take or leave Eddie Redmayne, but he seems appropriate for the twitchy Scamander here, and Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, and whatever Johnny Depp is doing is an exciting prospect. Plus, monsters!

So from a meta-narrative standpoint I'm actually pretty jazzed up. But how will it do otherwise? Commercially I think the path is paved pretty clear. It's main competition is Doctor Strange (2016), which has had three weeks to burn off any demand it had (which was significant). Will people show up for another magic show? I think the brands are different enough that it won't be much of an issue. It's surprisingly been five whole years since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011), and its popularity hasn't really ceased in that time. It runs into Moana (2016) next week, but that's also a slightly younger skewing demographic. I bet it can make some serious bank, especially because it looks fresh, without the hang-ups of school or Voldemort or stupid candy frogs and shit. The one trip-up I can see is if the series tries too hard to tie into the original...uh...octilogy? If it's allowed to stand and be its own thing, it'll do great.

The critical response so far has been mixed to positive, which is about what you can expect from all the lesser Potter films. Consensus seems to be that there's a lot of story and mythology packed in here, it gets a bit dark and bleaky at times and tackles some big themes of bigotry and intolerance. Like a grimdark Zootopia (2016)! Just what the family needs this holiday season. I'm none too worried about any of this, as long as it's average to slightly-above average, it'll be setting a high bar for 2016 blockbusters. That's a horrible, pathetic standard, but hey, this is 2016 - everything sucks.

Lastly, let's talk culture. I think there is a bit of a hole right now, and to be fair, in our long-term memory this goes against Rogue One pretty hard. It'll really depend on how good that one is, or if it does anywhere near the business of The Force Awakens (2015), or if it's treated more as a side-note kind of film, which is what it seems. Still, it'll be interesting of Potter and Star Wars enact a holiday duel for the next few years. Considering how gargantuan both properties are, I don't really see that working out for our cultural memory. Fantastic Beasts has enough distinctive imagery already to be culturally significant, but it'll really depend on whether or not people show up, buy in, and reminisce. So much iconography has already been established in Harry Potter, it'll really depend on if it can stand on its own, which again hearkens back to the idea that the more this tries NOT to be Harry Potter, the better it'll do. It's a hard lesson to learn, but fresh tends to trump re-dos every time. That's not pretty or safe or easy, but it's the truth.

So what do you think? Are you on board or brushing this off until we get Moana and Rogue One and every other Disney movie that has dominated 2016? How come Disney blockbusters are the only ones that are good anymore? This is crazy.

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