Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by David Yates
Well DC certainly isn’t about to keep Warner Bros solvent for years to come, so it’s time to dip back into the Harry Potter well and Accio them some of that sweet franchise cash! Now despite the somewhat desperate circumstances surrounding the studio behind this film, there is a lot of potential here as JK Rowling wrote the script for it and David Yates has returned once again to direct. Then again… neither one of them has had much luck with their creative endeavors since the last Potter film, particular David Yates whose Legend of Tarzan earlier this year is one of the many domestic flops Warner Bros has had to deal with in the last few years. Huh. Well I’m SURE none of that is important when it comes to this film which promises to get us all back to waving overpriced wands and repurchasing the book sets once again! Does this latest entry in the Potter Franchise manage to inject some new life to build a new slate of films from, or is this a desperate cash grab form a lot of people who haven’t found a way to move on from this series? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York City with nothing more than the clothes on his back and his TARDIS like suitcase full of magical creatures. He’s come to the US in search of yet another magical creature to further his research, yet things start to go sideways once his suitcase’s latch starts malfunctioning which gives some of the more rascally creatures a chance to escape. You’d think that tying a belt around it would solve the issue, but maybe he would need a MAGIC belt and simply didn’t have one available at the time. Anyway, one of the creatures does get loose which is quickly retrieved, but not before a No-maj (the American word for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) sees too much as well as Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) who seems to work for the US Ministry of Magic and wants to bring Newt in for questioning. Sadly for all involved, shenanigans ensue and Newt’s suitcase is broken wide open for even MORE creatures to escape which means that he must roam the streets of New York looking for them with Tina and Jacob in tow in an attempt to keep things nice and quiet as well as avoid jail time for all three of them. Of course, that’s not ALL that’s going on here as there seem to be some deeper intrigue involving a REALLY on the nose religious group known as the New Salem Church (subtle) being led by some zealot (Samantha Morton) and there might even be some traitorous players in the US Ministry of Magic that are helping them in their goals of hunting down magic users. Will Newt manage to get his creatures back before animal control either kills them or gets eaten themselves? What exactly is the New Salem church after, as well as those inside the wizarding world who are VERY closely looking at their activities? How the hell did Newt even get mixed up in all this!? HE JUST WANTED TO BUY SOMETHING!!
To me, Harry Potter has always been a series crying out for more stories, especially ones that don’t center on The Boy Who Lived, the fate of all wizard kind, or some old ass artifacts that NO ONE bothered to bring up until the last minute. Hell, I wanted to see something like that so badly that I fell for IGN’s April Fool’s Day video from 2011 that promised us a Harry Potter cop show called The Aurors, and the fact that the BBC hasn’t driven a dump truck of money to the doorstep of Queen Rowling to actually make that is one of the biggest mysteries of the twenty-first century along with The Harlem Shake and that John Carter movie. On its own, this film is at least as good as any of the Harry Potter films (though probably not THE BEST one) and has the added benefit of being a fresh take on the series for those who might have gotten tired of seeing Hogwarts for the eighth time in a row. The film has its flaws, mostly in the subplots and the villains, but there are so many interesting concepts and ideas that we didn’t get to see in other Harry Potter films that make this film all the more engrossing and will hopefully be a harbinger of things to come as far as where this universe can go in future installments and what other cool stuff is hiding on the outskirts of the wizarding world. Maybe in a few years when the Harry Potter Expanded Universe is in full swing, we’ll look back on this one and see it as little more than a workmanlike starting point, but for right now it’s easily one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.
What works in this movie is similar to what made the other movies so great; namely a fascinating and inventive world (with great special effects to realize them) and fun characters to follow throughout the adventure, particular Newt Scamander played by Eddie Redmayne. Now a lot of people have been giving him flak since his Oscar win, and while I’m not his biggest fan, he’s proven himself to be quite engaging in other films and this role here is no exception. It takes a bit of time to warm up to him and the way he portrays the character, but once you get a better idea of what makes him tick and what makes him happy, he comes off as very endearing and is more than capable of carrying this movie. He doesn’t have much use for humans, either as wizards or as No-majes (No-magi?), which means he usually stays at arm’s length of them preferring to spend his time with the titular fantastic creatures. Anytime he has a chance to talk about creatures or interact with them directly, his character comes to life and you can see the love beaming off of Redmayne’s face as he cares for the monsters he keeps in his bag. Around humans though, he’s much more hesitant to form attachments and seems mostly oblivious to how he’s making things harder for them, but as the movie goes along, he ends up coming around to his newfound friends and Redmayne sells this character arc with aplomb.
I had similar feelings about Tina Goldstein who also took some time to warm up to, but unfortunately I’m not as impressed with her arc as I was with Newt. She takes much longer to eventually come into her own, and until then she seems to be straight up incompetent in everything she does; to the point that I can hardly buy her ever being an Auror in this universe if this is how poorly she handed things. She eventually becomes a strong presence in the movie, but it feels less like us getting to understand her character rather that the script having her stop tripping over herself and suddenly remembering how good she is at being what is essentially a magic cop. Jacob Kowalski is probably gonna be the breakout here considering how great Dan Fogler is at comic relief (though I’m not sure if he should come back in future installments), and I also think that Tina’s sister Queenie played by Alison Sudol was just as great at providing levity and heart to the movie. She comes off as kind of a stereotype (basically playing the Betty Boop archetype) so your mileage with her character is going to vary but there’s a real strength to her that I found quite captivating and I ended up liking every scene she was in; something I can’t really say about Tina or even Newt who do have some weaker scenes here and there.
On top of all the main characters being charming and engaging (some to a greater degree than others), the movie’s production is just as good as should be expected form a franchise this huge and goes to prove that the Wizarding World has much more room to grow. There are so many wonderful locations that you just want to absorb for much longer than the movie could possible allow; from Newt’s animal sanctuary in his bag, to a wizard’s only speak-easy with goblins (I think) singing jazz tunes. Everything in here is convincingly realized against the backdrop of 1920s New York City that’s somewhat stylized but no less convincing of a presence. Another thing that always felt like a wasted opportunity in the books (that was somewhat rectified in the later films) was how disconnected the wizards were from the rest of the world, either in how they segregated themselves to their own communities, or how they couldn’t figure out even the basics of non-magical life. Seriously, is there ANY reason they have to use PARCHMENT AND QUILLS instead of a damn notepad and an ink pen? Hell, I’m pretty sure there was a guy in the fourth book who didn’t know what pants were. They managed to figure radios (which were prominently featured in the seventh book), but PANTS are a total mystery!? This movie does away with all of that as the wizards of New York City are deeply ingrained with the world of the No-mages. They walk the same streets, wear the same clothes, and as far as I can tell rent the same apartment buildings. The first time we go into Tina and Queenie’s apartment, they’re clearly using modern technology like electric lighting and clothes irons in conjunction with their own magic, and I absolutely loved watching for stuff in the background in these kinds of scenes. Now there are places in the world building that could have used some improvement, particularly The US Ministry of Magic (or whatever they call it here) who are STILL closed minded idiots that get EVERYTHING wrong at every turn, and as far as I can tell there’s no actual due process because an execution is sentenced within hours of an arrest to be carried out IMMEDIATELY, and is ordered by ONE person (not even a high ranking official as far as I can tell) without a trial. Look, maybe NOW is not the best time to continue beating the drum for sanity in depictions of government, but it’s one of my pet peeves in any fiction where the world powers are intentionally acting without any though or foresight as a cheap way to add tension to a story and an obstacle for the heroes to overcome and this movie is unfortunately guilty of that, especially considering that there’s no REASON for it like there was in the seventh book when Voldemort took over. They’re not evil! They’re just WOEFULLY incompetent! Yeah, not much better.
Since we’re on the subject of what doesn’t work here, the bad guy in this (who is pretty easy to guess but I won’t spoil it) is not really effective or intimidating, and his motivations remain murky until the very end. It’s one thing to do what most of the Harry Potter books did which was to make the central conflict a mystery for the audience to solve, but there’s no intrigue here. We get PLENTY of scenes of THE BAD GUY talking to people in hushed tones and cryptic language which means they’ve already gave up the ghost for the Whodunit, but they still won’t let us know what’s going on as these scenes are nearly nonsensical and don’t have any connection to our heroes and what they’re going through until the third act of the film. That’s another thing that’s odd about this movie. Newt and his friends have absolutely zero connection to what’s going on with the villain plot which involves THE BAD GUY and this weird New Salem church who are hunting witches (do these No-maj zealots even know about the wizarding world?) which means we’re basically running two movies parallel to each other; one of which is a fun adventure with wizards trying to find magical creatures in New York City, and another one involving characters we don’t care about doing cryptic things that involve a senator for some reason even though I’m not sure why, and none of it feels relevant until way late in the movie. Newt JUST SO HAPPENED to come to New York on the same day that THE BAD GUY was basically planning his evil scheme, and I honestly would have liked it if they didn’t even bother with the villains in here and instead focused on what trouble Newt ends up causing by bringing the creatures to New York. Now I’m told that a lot of the stuff that happens in THE BAD GUY’S part of the movie DOES tie back to the original books and that I’m supposed to recognize a few names as well as the symbol of the Deathly Hallows, but I’m not about to cut this movie slack for making references to a nine year old book and a six year old movie that are integral to understanding THIS story; ESPECIALLY that final twist which had to be explained to me later. It’s not just relegated to the villain plot either, as the film stops for a few minutes at one point to let us ALL know that Newt’s former love interest is Leta Lestrange (presumable related to Bellatrix and I guess Sirius as well), and it feels so in-organically shoehorned into the movie that it almost ends up derailing one of the better scenes in the movie. This should be a fresh start for the series, and the film is at its best when it’s being that. When it’s not though, the film suffers for it and it’s a shame that those references HAD to be in the movie, though depending on how they play out in the next film, it might end up working out for the best. For now though, I think it’s entirely fair to point out that having these references play such an integral part of the story is alienating to a rather large segment of the film’s intended audience which is not just those who are big enough fans to remember these minor details.
For the general audience, this might come off as somewhat unimpressive, what with the muddled subplots and an ending that relies on you having a pretty extensive knowledge of the Harry Potter universe. Even though I share all those concerns about this movie, I still found it to be an absolute delight as the world is so perfectly realized and the actors are all fun to watch as they chase monsters on the streets of New York City. Sometimes all it takes is a really interesting world and likable characters for me to give movies HUGE passes on their stories (*cough* Jupiter Ascending *cough*) but I think this is still gonna play well for anyone with even a passing interest in the Harry Potter universe. You should absolutely go out and see this film in theaters as the magic of the wizarding world plays really well on the big screen which is an experience you do not wish to miss. Well, that and it’s gonna be hard to avoid spoilers while waiting for this to get on blu-ray.
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