I’ve done a lot of complaining about the modern Hollywood machine. Every movie these days needs to be huge, loud and turned into a multi-billion dollar franchise. It’s ultimately inescapable, and it’s wearing me down, making me jaded. Some projects break through my jaded shell, though. One such franchise-in-the-making is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, better known as “the Harry Potter spin-off.” I shouldn’t be excited. I know I shouldn’t. A spin-off from a beloved franchise? Clearly this is nothing more than a cash-grab. And yet…
And yet I look at how this “new” film franchise is being put together and I can’t help thinking it has every opportunity to be something great and original. All the pieces are there, and history backs it up as well.
First and foremost, J.K. Rowling is the reason I’m excited. She cares about her creation, and while the temptation to retreat to the world that brought her success is there, I don’t believe she’d do this movie if she weren’t sure of her ideas. And she’s not just doing this movie, she’s writing it. For Rowling it’s a chance to venture into a new medium, planting her creativity directly in the visual medium, rather than relying on another screenwriter to adapt her work. There won’t be questions of the quality of adaptation. This movie series will be direct from the source, and that’s exciting to me.
One of my favourite details of this new series is its setting. From what’s been revealed so far, the movie will at least begin in New York, and probably jump to other locales thereafter. I love this. Much as the Harry Potter universe is already well sketched and expansive, I’ve often felt it quite insular. The story is very British, and it can be difficult to envision the way the world works outside that country. By going global, Rowling is set to expand our understanding of the universe she created. It also offers plenty of chance to give audiences something new, despite being a spin-off. Plus, setting it in the 1920s, and all over the world, means this series won’t be a prequel of any sort, which satiates fears that we’ve got another The Hobbit trilogy on our hands.
Yesterday, reports surfaced that David Yates is the likely candidate to take on at least the first film in this new Potter series. Yates, of course, directed the last four films in the Harry Potter, and in the humble opinion of this writer, his films are easily the best in that series. While Alfonso Cuarón did great work establishing the darker tone that came to define the series, I find his entry problematic. His direction, while stylish and energetic, often favoured the frenetic pacing and terrible humour over getting into the hearts of the characters. Yates, coming after Mike Newell’s ham-fisted and boorish approach, took what Cuarón had done, and grounded it. He made the vast world revolve around the emotional states of his characters, and that’s evident from the opening frames of his first film.
With the two-and-a-half films that followed, Yates experimented with unique styles to further reflect his characters’ emotions. Half-Blood Prince features the beautiful cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who also worked on Amelie and Inside Llewyn Davis. Delbonnel’s hazy, monochromatic visuals serve to heighten the teen romance of the film, as well as the murky memories and harsh pain of Harry’s predicament, all in equal measure.
In that sixth film, Yates also encourages the quieter moments that really make the series sing, including a beautiful scene in which Professor Slughorn tells Harry a story about his mother. He also filmed my favourite scene in the entire series. One that never appeared in the books, but so perfectly encapsulates the emotional heart of Rowling’s creation. After Ron has abandoned his friends in the seventh film, Harry hears a Nick Cave song playing on the radio, and to cheer up Hermione, even if only for a moment, he takes her hand and begins to dance.
That seventh film, which so many have complained about as being boring, and pointless, easily stands out to me as the best in the series, precisely because of scenes like that. It also has the beautiful animated “Tale of the Three Brothers,” which is one of the most inspired moments in the series. The film is sad, contemplative, haunting. It’s like a character-focused indie movie in the middle of a huge tentpole franchise.
To me that’s what Yates brought to the cinematic world of Harry Potter. In my opinion, the fact that he’s the one to bring about this offshoot franchise is wonderful. It tells me that Rowling and producer David Heyman are looking for more than just a sure hand. They want someone who can ground this series, make it stylish, and above all make it human. And considering the state of studio filmmaking these days, we could use more humanity in our blockbusters.
Corey Atad is a Staff Writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.