James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
Directed by David Yates
Reviewed by James Rosario on November 25, 2016
I'm doing my best to not compare Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to any of the other eight films in the Harry Potter franchise. This is proving difficult considering its director, David Yates, helmed four of them, and his fingerprints are all over this offering. This is not a bad thing, mind you. I enjoyed all of his Harry Potter movies, and, as a fan of the novels, appreciate his take on the source material. Comparisons, I'm afraid, are inevitable and unavoidable, so here goes.
If you're a fan of the wizarding world that J.K. Rowling has created with her book series and their film counterparts, you most likely will find no faults whatsoever with Fantastic Beasts. And that is just fine. It's fun, it's entertaining, and it has lots and lots of magical creatures, big and small. What's not to love? Well, there are a few things. The film's faults may be minor in the grand scheme of things, but they are faults nonetheless.
First, a bit of backstory, and some positives. The film opens with a British wizard by the name of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York City in the year 1926. He carries with him a mysterious piece of luggage that, if you've seen the trailer, you already know contains some sort of magical creature or creatures. After a misunderstanding with a local, the case is opened and an assortment of cute, odd, and/or humongous beasts are accidentally released.
Magical creatures are strictly forbidden in the United States, per an agreement the top brass of the wizarding world has with at least one branch of the U.S. Government in an attempt to keep magic a secret. Newt, two American witches, Porpetina (Katherine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), along with Jacob, a hapless non-magical human, or “No-Maj” (scene stealer Dan Fogler), promptly set off to catch the missing monsters. Along the way, the progressively evil Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) attempts to wrangle another creature, a very bad one who is prone to mass amounts of property damage, for his own purposes.
With the secrecy agreement in peril, motives clash as our protagonists do their best to clean up their mess. It all moves along at a pretty fast clip so you'd better be pay attention. The pace is a plus, it keeps the story moving right along, but I recommend you take a bathroom break before the movie starts or you will most likely miss something important.
Visually, Beasts is top of the line, arguably the best looking film of the franchise. As technology advances, films that rely heavily on CGI and motion capture will inevitably look better and better every year. It's hard to imagine something looking better than this, but that's how it works.
The 1920s New York that Yates and his team has created is spectacular. This is the first film in the franchise that takes place predominantly in the “muggle,” or in this case, No-Maj world. I've personally been waiting for this sort of thing for eight films. Seeing wizards and witches navigate a society that doesn't know they exist—except for some truly creepy puritanical religious groups—is a concept that I can't wait to see more of. There's a lot of territory there, and with the secrecy agreement in jeopardy, I suspect this is an area that will most definitely be explored further.
On a side note, the wardrobes seem to be altered very little from the previous films. Fashion-wise, for some reason, wizards are stuck somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.
The performances are adequate, which sounds harsh, but isn't meant as a slight. I have no complaints with how the characters are portrayed, just with some of what they're given to work with. The actors have done a fine job with the script (penned by Rowling herself, a first for her), but it's the script itself that has some problems. Nobody in this film packs nearly the emotional punch that Harry and the gang did. Their plight simply doesn't resonate with me. Harry's story came loaded with built-in mythology, Newt's doesn't. I hope we'll get there in the succeeding films—there are 4 more planned, apparently—but for now, we've just got the one.
The story exists largely as set up for the next films. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but at 133 minutes, it gets a bit tedious. Couple this with the lightning pace, and you've got quite a lot to constantly digest lest you become lost. Every scene is exciting and fun, but it's also packed with important information. My 15-year-old son told me afterwards that he found it all easy to follow, but then had some difficulty explaining certain plot elements to me. Make of that what you will.
As I said earlier, the bulk of the action takes place in the No-Maj world, and the magic underworld which exists just under its surface. I enjoyed this change of scenery so much that, because of it, I would have been willing to forgive far more faults than the film actually had. In fact, much of the fun of Fantastic Beasts is carried by its most lovable character, who also happens to be a No-Maj. Jacob Kowalski (stage and voice-over actor Fogler) consistently steals every scene he's in. His wide-eyed amazement and awkward navigation of all things magic is what holds the film together. The wizards and witches, as I said, are just fine, but Fogler's Kowalski helps give them a much needed depth that otherwise might not have been there. Rowling and Yates are on to something here, I hope they keep it up.
One more note on the No-Maj world the film inhabits: I have to say that the anti-witch conspiracy organization, the New Salem Philanthropic Society, and its Village of the Damned-esque children are way creepier than Lord Voldemort ever was. I hope to see this fanatical McCarthyist religious sect explored further. I love the concept of such a group existing. Only in America!
I've enjoyed every entry into the Potter franchise to date, including this one. If you're a fan, you're a fan, and I suspect that nothing I or anyone else could say would sway that in the slightest. Is it as good as any given Harry Potter movie? Probably not. It certainly isn't as good as my favorite, The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), but that's okay. It's exciting and beautiful to look at, and there's even a bit of political allegory, and that's just fine with me.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is playing at Grail Moviehouse, UA Beaucathcer, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, and Epic Theatres of Hendersonville
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