Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (2016) – Movie Review
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterstone, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol & Colin Farrell
Music: James Newton Howard
Release Date: November 18th 2016
For a whole generation of viewers, you could make the argument that the “Harry Potter” film franchise did for millennials what “Star Wars” was for kids in the 70s and 80s. Due to having a consistent production from 2001 to 2011, audiences could literally grow up in almost real-time with the characters on screen and the fact that most of the sets were practically built with massive attention paid to the world-building meant that audiences felt immersed in a whole new universe. But all good things must end at some point and after ‘Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows – Part 2‘ concluded J.K. Rowling’s book-to-film series in 2011 you’d think that would be all she wrote.
However, J.K. Rowling also wrote a few Hogwarts School textbooks which were sold to raise money for charity and in order to expand the film franchise further, Warner Bros. have brought Rowling on board to write the screenplay for a whole new Wizard-Franchise based off the writer of the fictional textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”; Newt Scamander. Four-time Potter director David Yates will helm this re-introduction to the wizarding world but is this like trying to get blood from a stone? Should we just leave well enough alone or is there still magic to be found in this franchise?
It’s the 1920s and the wizarding community is on high alert due to the exploits of the dark wizard Grindelwald in Europe. It’s during this uncertainty that Newt Scamander (Redmayne) travels to New York City with a briefcase full of magical creatures that he is studying in order to write a book about them. However, an accidental encounter with the ordinary “no-maj” Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) causes him to lose sight of his case and some creatures are let loose in the city. The Magical Congress of the United States of America suspects that the beasts are dangerous and tasks Percival Graves (Farrell) to kill them and those responsible, meaning it’s up to Newt, Jacob and disgraced former Auror Tina Goldstein (Waterstone) and her sister Queenie (Sudol) to find the lost creatures and return them to the briefcase whilst also evading capture themselves.
In a sense, the plot feels like an amalgamation of what the Internet community really likes. We have a “Harry Potter” film where our “Doctor Who”-esque main character travels around with something that is bigger on the inside than outside (a.k.a. his briefcase), going on a “Pokemon” style adventure to humanely capture a bunch of creatures. That’s not me knocking Internet-culture or any of those franchises, that’s just how the film comes across. It’s a solid set-up for a film but the marketing has been rather misleading in implying that ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ is a movie primarily about the titular beasts and trying to locate them.
While that can be summed up as “Plot-A” there is also a “Plot-B” and a “Plot-C” with relatively little crossover with Newt’s sub-plot as we have numerous sub-plots which amount to world-building the Potter-verse in the 1920s. We have the paranoia in the wizarding community concerning the dark wizard Grindelwald, the paranoia in the muggle/no-maj world with an anti-magic organisation called the “New Salem Philanthropic Society” who are convinced that witches and wizards are living amongst them. We have Auror Percival Graves who is working with the adopted son of the head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society in trying to find a magical entity which is wreaking havoc to New York citizens, there’s a political power struggle in the city (which hardly amounts to anything and feels like a waste of time) and all of this is fighting for space amongst the quest to find the escaped creatures.
It’s actually surprising how these elements wind up working together but it feels like ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ is trying to start three different film franchises and while ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘ worked as a standalone story that could also lead to other adventures, this feels like one of the sub-plots is stand-alone and the rest is setting up for future. It doesn’t feel like the plots are inconsequential, but it’s hard to imagine Newt’s quest for these beasts is going to have any impact in the Universe other than a Hogwarts textbook. Just imagine if Harry & Co’s quest for the Philosopher’s Stone was about 35% of the first film and the remaining 65% was revolving around Ministry of Magic stuff, combined with the hierarchy of the Hogwarts staff and how much the Dursley Family hate Wizards. That’s about what you get here and it gives the film a lack of focus, but it’s edited in a way that it doesn’t become boring.
That’s the thing about ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘; in the broad strokes, it feels a bit sloppy and unfocused but when it comes to the details, the world and the characters the film absolutely excels. And when it comes to the “Harry Potter” franchise, it’s those elements that fans are drawn to the most. The 1920s New York setting is great as there are some familiar elements to the already timeless aesthetic of the franchise, but the fact that it’s set in America instead of England gives the movie an entirely new flavour. 1920s speakeasies, the New York subway system, Central Park and other landmarks are accounted for and all of them are given unique twists to help immerse you in this different-but-the-same universe.
Character-wise, Newt Scamander is a great protagonist (even if he’s a carbon copy of Matt Smith’s Doctor from “Doctor Who” which can’t have been accidental considering that Warner Bros. considered Matt Smith for the role initially) and he’s an eccentric personality without becoming grating. The way he holds himself makes you think that he was always socially awkward and a bit dweeby whose mind is not always “all-there”, but he’s content and always into his hobbies. He’s clearly been hurt in the past and is trying to move on and is trying to do the right thing by these magical creatures that Wizard-kind fears and try and inform them that most of them aren’t any danger to anyone.
In the supporting cast, it’s worth talking about about Tina Goldstein, a disgraced auror who is trying to earn her way back into the U.S. version of the Ministry of Magic; the Magical Congress of the United States of America. She’s down-to-earth which makes her a great contrast to Newt but she also has a sympathetic goal of trying to prove her worth despite her occasionally making a few mistakes along the way. She also has a sister named Queenie who is a blonde bombshell with telepathic powers. This not only makes for great comedy, but she is fully aware that she can be seen as the ditzy-blonde and uses that to her advantage on numerous occasions.
We also have the no-maj Jacob Kowalski, an aspiring baker who stumbles into Newt’s situation and it’s safe to say that he’s the M.V.P. of this film. Not only is he the outsider on-hand to be given exposition for the sake of the audience, but Dan Fogler’s performance is so endearing and he’s so entertaining that he becomes more than just the comic-relief. He’s the emotional anchor of the film by being the under-dog who, oddly enough, most of the protagonists actually respect. Newt sees the value in having somebody help find the beasts and though it takes a while for Tina to get on board with having a no-maj be a part of their group, Queenie instantly sees his redeeming qualities and we’re given one of the most charming on-screen romances of 2016. Without Jacob Kowalski, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ would lose a lot of its magic.
Villain wise, we have Colin Farrell as Percival Graves who may seem rather one-note, but it’s clear as the film goes along that it’s an intentional decision. Which is shame because Farrell can be a great villainous presense and he certainly looks the part. Ezra Miller plays his no-maj right-hand man with the worst haircut in the world and Samantha Morton whole-heartedly commits to playing the close-minded no-maj who is trying to turn no-maj’s against wizards. Personality-wise, they’re not complex villains and it feels like the movie could have spent more time expanding on their motivations but they get the job done. But when everything gets revealed in the third act they fill their plot-specific role and also make way for some appropriate allegories.
Because ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ seems to have its sights aimed squarely at criticising aspects of American culture, specifically their systemic racism (here shown as humans vs. wizards), notorious civilian over-sight (Wizards MUST have a wand permit which tracks everyone’s location and everything that the wand-bearer does), the death penalty (self-explanatory) and its use of religion to stifle L.G.B.Ts. It’s the latter point where most of the attention is given as we’re introduced to an “Obscurus” which is the dangerous form that a magical-person can take if their powers are restrained or if they try to suppress the natural part of themselves. Due to the metaphorical-religious oppression put upon one of the main characters, they become a dark and destructive parasite which can lead to their self-destruction. It’s interesting to see how ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ plays to an American audience, considering how critical it can be of American culture, but it allows the movie to tackle many relevant issues whilst still adding to the mythology of the world.
But another narrative issue comes with a late-in-the-game twist on just who the big threat of the movie will be and without giving anything away…the movie heavily sign-posts it to be one character, then once we get close to the reveal the movie doubles-down on it definitely being that character and how it possibly couldn’t be someone else…and then it turns out that the film was leading us astray. Now, twists are fine and fun and cool when appropriately handled but doubling down so close to the actual reveal came across as unnecessary and makes the twist harder to swallow in the moment. It makes what should be a dramatic reveal feel like a betrayal to the audience because it feels like the movie actively lied immediately before pulling the rug.
Maybe that’s just a nit-pick and I don’t want to pick apart the film too much because it is a lot of fun. The set-pieces involving Newt and Jacob catching magical creatures are a ton of fun and are full of timeless physical comedy, the characters are great in terms of their interactions together and you really care about this quartet accomplishing their goals. Jacob wants to open up a bakery and he’s just so sincere and sweet a character that you just want nothing more than to see him bake stuff! Action-wise, it’s great seeing fully experienced and trained wizards fighting and using their abilities as opposed to watching still-learning teenagers (and Newt uses some of the smaller animals in his case to brilliant effect in the action-scenes), the creatures are incredibly well designed and the reveal of what’s inside of Newt’s briefcase is a scene that’ll become a regular fixture of “Top 10 Harry Potter Movie Moments” to come; even if a lot of the briefcase interiors are reliant on green-screen as opposed to practical sets like in the past.
The closest comparison in terms of the production values would the Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. It looks awesome and polished and it’s clear the director is a technical craftsman (though it’d be nice to see someone other than David Yates direct future films to inject fresh creative blood behind the cameras), but it does feel like more of this film was made in a computer than was necessary. One thing that’s made the Potter franchise resonate so much with audiences is that many of the locations, sets and buildings were real. You can actually visit the sets and go on studio tours, you can walk down Diagon Alley, you can visit Hagrid’s hut, you can set foot into the Potion’s Room etc. Here, most of the practical sets are the domestic locations and the rest feels like it was shot on a green-screen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in concept, but it’s disappointing as a Potter-fan.
However, while we see Ron Perlman play play a goblin who owns an underground speakeasy (pictured below), he’s an entirely digital creation for absolutely no reason. There is no reason Perlman had to be motion-captured for this role, plain and simple. It’s not even a size issue as in the same speakeasy we meet his character we see goblins of vastly different sizes. The make-up on his face has been applied elsewhere in the franchise and he could easily have been scaled-down ‘Captain America: The First Avenger‘-style if size was an issue. It’s just distracting and the effect doesn’t even look that good. This franchise has done better in terms of wholly-digital creations. The music by James Newton Howard takes influence from previous Potter-composers and uses those motifs but brings in lots of original and fresh new elements to give us a beautiful soundtrack.
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ is one of the more flawed movies in the franchise, but its fresh and inventive look at a different side of the Wizarding World, fun and endearing characters and effective use of metaphors to deliver relevant social commentary help to make up for many of the film’s shortcomings. Namely the rather haphazard pacing, mixed-villains and rather inconsequential sub-plots. It’s a successful set-up for what Warner Bros. obviously hope to turn into another multi-film saga but just how consequential the actions of Newt Scamander and co. will determine this movie’s longevity down the road. And who knows, maybe in 3 or 4 films time we’ll have to re-evaluate the merits or the lack thereof of ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘. But for now, it’s a fun time at the movies and it’s great to see the Potter world on the big-screen again.
I give ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 22nd Jan 17