Movie Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’
Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Colin Farrell
Plot: Freelancing wizard biologist Newt Scamander has arrived in New York city in the 1920s carrying his enchanted suitcase, which houses his menagerie of magical creatures. When some escape and needs to be rounded up Newt finds himself caught up in the affairs of the Magical Congress of the USA and a group of No-Maj’s starting a witch hunt through the city.
Review: So how do you continue the Harry Potter franchise when you’ve run out of Harry Potter book? Grab a written-for-charity, remarkably slim reference book for the fictional world and blow it out to a five movie series. Now how did it shake out? Good…and bothersome.
Here’s what works. Shifting the action to 1920s New York means we get a look into the wizarding world in America at a different time, and this is a joy for the geeks and fans of the series. The humans are called ‘No-Majs’ instead of ‘Muggles’ and everything is managed by the MACUSA rather than a Ministry for Magic and answer to a President rather than a Minister. It’s not just the lingo but the attitudes and laws that are quite different, with magical folk being forbidden from interacting with the No-Maj on any level. We also have the Second Salem crew, a group of humans who suspect there are witches in New York and are looking to start the fires again.
Fleshing out the world is some fantastic art direction, mixing the magical trappings of the original series with the fashion of the era. The film looks brilliant, and it is no less brilliant when they delve into the expansive suitcase to see all of Newt’s creatures in his animal refuge. We’ve also got a solid cast of actors filling out the cast, even if not all the characters get the chance to be fleshed out. Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Kowalski and Queenie are the most fun, sharing great chemistry and having some genuinely funny moments.
Eddie Redmayne in the lead as Newt Scamander gives a good performance, but we wind up learning very little about the character. This is first major stumble the movie makes and it’s one that some new franchises have been making quite often lately (coughJusticeLeaguecough). We get hints about Newt’s past at Hogwarts, his relationship with Dumbledore and an unresolved love with a LeStrange but none of it gets explained or even discussed as they’re keeping it all on hold for the next eight years worth of sequels. A strong franchise entry can stand on it’s own – it’s why the MCU works so well, because every movie is really good and fun as an individual film. We didn’t come into the theatre for a prologue to a movie two years away, we came for this film. There is some good world building going on here, but this is frustrating.
The narrative suffers as much as the characters. We have Newt hunting his creatures, the MACUSA and Tina’s backstory as a disgraced Auror, the Second Salem outfit and a family of politicians and media moguls all getting introduced and only a few of the threads get resolved. The movie begins with a montage of newspaper headlines about Grindelward being a big evil bad guy, then he doesn’t matter a damn until the last five minutes. It feels like they had a checklist of franchise building blocks they were required to fulfil with the rest of the story being secondary.
We also get one of my pet hates about prequels, that they lean heavily on any and all links to the previous films. When Colin Farrell tries to casually deliver the line “What was it that…ALBUS DUMBLEDORE!!!…saw in you?” it sounds beyond silly. Yes, you said a name we know. Well done you.
I’ve also got a gripe with the way magic is portrayed in the franchise. This has been a problem since the first Harry Potter film, in that they have an array of creative spells that can be used in offence and defence but whenever there’s a fight or an action scene they just zap each other with firecrackers, then inevitably two wands will link up while the characters grimace at each other (wasn’t this supposed to be an unexpected thing only Harry and Voldemort’s wands did?). Throughout the books most spells are verbalised or have specific motions while the movies increasingly go with the idea that a wand can be vaguely pointed and any old thing can happen ranging from cooking a meal up to building an entire skyscraper in a matter of seconds. Once you’ve set some rules you need to stick with them.
So there’s some nitpicks, and I like nitpicking. But the movie is fun, looks nice and tells and reasonable story. Fans of the previous movie franchise who want more well likely go home happy, and it carries the tone and feeling quite well. Less cynical movie goers will be able to over look the issues I had. Except for the big horned creature charging down Kowalski and somehow totally missing the massive birdcage that was separating them. That’s just poor editing.
Rating: SEVEN out of TEN