Film Review: FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Ferrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Ron Perlman, Ronan Raftery, Jon Voight
Directed by David Yates
Written by J. K. Rowling
Based on the book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” by J. K. Rowling
Produced by David Heyman, J. K. Rowling, Steve Kloves and Lionel Wigram
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot
Edited by Mark Day
Music by James Newton Howard
Visual effects supervisors, Tim Burke, Christian Manz
Production designer, Stuart Craig
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a fun, rousing, dazzling and overall entertaining fantasy film for people of all ages, marks the continuance of several winning streaks: for J. K. Rowling’s Potteresque wizarding world films; for lead actor Eddie Redmayne, who turns in another quality performance; for the talented and hard-working filmic special effects community; and for fantasy, sci-fi and supernatural-oriented films in 2016, a banner year for films in these categories. “Fantastic Beasts” is indeed a fantasy film that can appeal to all ages and all types of filmgoers—it’s inventive, fast-paced, humorous, kid-oriented and equally adult-oriented (and even dark and foreboding) at times, humorous throughout, a film that definitely carries filmgoers to an interesting alternative universe, and, overall, an enjoyable special-effects-filled escapist film. The film opens very wide on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, and it should dominate theaters not only during its opening weekend on the third weekend of November, but during the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, too, providing a blockbuster start to the holiday movie season.
“Fantastic Beasts” should satisfy the legions of fans worldwide who made the eight-film “Harry Potter…” series a universal blockbuster success, but the film should also bring in some new fans who are looking for something new and different. And, yes, “Beasts” will also satisfy the wishes of longtime Potterworld fans who want more of the Potter world, but who also want something new and different in the Potter world. So it’s good news to report that “Fantasic Beasts” does provide new and different aspects to the Rowling-Potter-wizarding world: First, there’s no Harry Potter, Hermione Granger or Ron Weasley, there’s none of their counterparts, the film is not set in their time and place, and no scenes are set at the Hogwarts wizarding school. Second, “Beasts” is set during a different time period altogether—a charming, fashionable, nostalgic and somewhat romanticized 1920s New York City. Third, the “Beasts” story involves an entirely new and different set of characters. And fourth, although the story and characters are set in the overall Potter Cinematic Universe of wizards, creatures, fantastic beasts, good-versus-evil, magic, wands, spells, fantasy and ever-present evil darker forces lurking around to cause havoc, death and destruction, the new, stand-alone characters and their back-stories are individual, different, original and unique enough to stand on their own and carry their own separate plot and subplots.
Thus, with those parameters established, Rowling’s script—credited solely to her, based on her 2001 book of the same name and a previous Potter world subplot—introduces the endearing, softspoken, quiet and somewhat shy magic-oriented zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s on a visit to New York City in 1926 with a magical briefcase full of magical and, yes, fantastic beasts, when, through a bumbling encounter with a humble, also-somewhat quiet and shy baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), some of those fantastic beasts escape into the world of largely non-magical, non-wizarding people, and in that world, the beasts can cause all sorts of havoc, destruction and confusion. Interestingly, and somewhat coincidentally—or, in a fantasy world filled with magic, one could consider that it’s not so coincidental—the encounter with Kowalski and the subsequent escape of the beast occur during an old-fashioned street fire-and-brimstone religious protest and sermon by the puritanical Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a member of the Second Salemers, a religious, preaching, straight-laced type who is preaching all manners of dark apocalyptical dangers from unseen magical people, who she brands as unholy witches who must be destroyed!
Meanwhile, also quite coincidentally—or, again, if one wants to again consider it not-so-coincidental amid the fantasy storytelling—Scamander’s beast escape, his run-in with Kowalski and Scamander’s apparent magical and wizarding abilities—are, well, conveniently witnessed by Porpentina, or Tina, Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a low-level worker for the Magical Congress of the United States, or MACUSA, a secret organization that monitors the shaky, sensitive intersections of the magic world and the non-magic world, and all things magic-world-related in the United States. You know, something like a magic world version of the CIA or the NSA. Goldstein just happens to be nearby when Scamander’s beast escapes, and she sees that Scamander is a wizard with a wand, so she approaches him, confronts him for allegedly not registering with MACUSA before his visit, and promptly takes him to MACUSA’s secretive New York City headquarters to report him to MACUSA president Serephina Picquery. There, Scamander gets his first glimpse of the slimy, creepy and hardcore MACUSA administrator Percival Graves, who immediately can’t stand Scamander, can’t stand Goldstein, and appears to not like anyone.
From there, the story takes shape, grows, becomes more layered, and actually offers a compelling main story and some equally-compelling subplots that are far more than just a zoologist trying to track down fantastic beasts. Scamander, Goldstein and Barebone come to discover, while trying to track down Scamander’s wayward beasts, capture them and get them back to Scamander’s safe sanctuary where he cares for them, that there are darker forces at hand, trying to upend and take over the good magical world with bad, evil, darker forces. Yes, it’s a clichéd, well-worn and familiar main subplot on its first description—just like it is in thousands of similar fantasy, sci-fi and horror movies, including all eight of the “Potter” movies—but Rowling is savvy enough to make sure her movie is far more than just a simple fight between good and evil, and she adds some suspenseful, interesting and funny subplots. These include a most original romantic subplot and a more conventional romantic subplot; a larger, more complex tale of deception, plotting and diabolical doings which can’t really be fully described because that would spoil the story; another large, more complex subplot concerning hidden secrets connected to the other deception-oriented subplot; and, yes, the title fantastic beasts who are always running, buzzing, roaming, growing, growling, evolving, escaping, and generally causing all sorts of Dr. Suess-like, “Jumanji”-like and Hobbit-like mischief, mayhem and malice.
When all of this, and more subplots, are smoothly blended together, “Beasts” ends up being a pretty darn entertaining, large-scale fantasy film, with enough plots, subplots, characters, twists, turns and surprises to make the film stand on its own, be exciting and suspenseful, and, amid the mayhem, be smart enough to remember to include some humanity, relationships, character development and, again humor and romance amid the action, special effects and more fantastical scenes.
And “Beasts” does include some fantastical, incredibly visual scenes, courtesy of the literally hundreds of special effects artists and several special effects companies who worked on the film, under the guidance of visual effects supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz. Just like with a now impressive list of quality, above-average fantasy, sci-fi and supernatural films in 2016, kudos and congrats in regards to “Beasts” must go out to the hard-working special effects crews. Their work in “Beasts” is continually, exceptionally wondrous and dazzling, from creating—in Liverpool and on British soundstages—a fully-believable, albeit romanticized, lush and at times beautiful, 1920s period Manhattan; several incredibly beautiful interior set designs; nice, appropriate period costumes, cars, props, signs, art, furniture, buildings and settings; entertaining magical scenes of wizarding battles, fights, chases, disappearances, appearances, magical illusions, invisibility, super powers and other wizarding things; and, above all, displaying, yes, a myriad, unique, quirky and even funny array of, well, fantastic beasts. These beasts run exceptionally fast; are able to hide bizarrely huge amounts of coins and jewelry on themselves (that particular beast provides some good comic relief); zip through the air at incredible speeds; buzz and fly like some weird hybrid bird-insect thing; grow big or grow small depending on their whim or spell or magic; lumber around like huge construction trucks; and even steal people’s hearts by appearing as, well–the comparison is quite obvious–little green Groot-like twig creatures that are meek, mild and attached to their human caretakers. But even though the twig creature is obviously similar to “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” large tree-like creature Groot, the “Beasts” creature is still endearing and lovable.
As with any quality fantasy and sci-fi film, “Beasts” manages to remember to blend the special effects bells and whistles with the attendant plots, subplots and characters, and the film manages to generally not get overtaken, too much, by the special effects. There is a solid story to tell, there are believable and likeable characters, and there is a meaning to all of the fantastical madness. Credit Rowling’s smart script and director David Yates’ savvy instincts with keeping all of the various parts together, and for constantly remembering—also much like “Guardians”—to include equal doses of humanity, characterization, relationships, romance, humor and other quite human qualities in the story. Rowling managed to do the same with her “Potter” stories, and that’s why she was able to crank out seven books in roughly ten years, with the last book stretched out into two films, for that total of eight films in the original series. Appropriately, Yates directed the last four “Potter” films, and “Beasts” co-producer Steve Kloves wrote the screenplays for seven of the eight “Potter” films. So there’s more continuity from the Potter franchise—the team of Yates, Rowling and Kloves—as well as several other “Potter” film alumni on “Beasts”—and, by now, they know exactly what they are doing, and they may be adopting and adapting to a certain wizarding world formula, but they do end up succeeding in presenting entertaining films as final products. Any franchise is going to have some similarities and is going to get a bit repetitive and familiar—some are swallowed by these negatives, some are able to keep things fresh or at least fun and entertaining, and, yes, some franchise series simply go on far too long with too many repetitive films. However, “Beasts” does present a new wizarding world.
“It feels the same but different,” Yates told USA Today. “In the sense that it’s Jo’s [J. K. Rowling’s] universe extended, but it feels different because it’s not Hogwarts, it’s not about kids. It’s about grown-ups. It’s dealing with very adult themes.”
The acting in “Beasts” is strong at all levels, from all involved. There’s not a weak performance in the film. Redmayne, who is simply one of the best actors working today—his credits include “Les Miserables,” “The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”—is actually wonderful with a role in which the character is really rather unassuming—modest, quiet, shy, meek. But it’s simply that mild-mannered, humorous characterization of Scamander that makes the character so appealing—much like Asa Butterfield’s equally mild-mannered portrayal of the quiet and shy lead character in Tim Burton’s equally wonderful “Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” from just several weeks ago. Both actors are smart enough to realize that they don’t have to overplay their characters amid the fantasy swirling around them—it’s much better to be the unassuming normal person caught up in a most non-unassuming, non-normal world. Waterston and Fogler, too, are equally humble, modest characters—especially Fogler, whose character appropriately spends much of the film looking wide-eyed in awe and wonder at the crazy, bizarre things happening all around him. That also provides some good comic relief. Fogler easily presents what his character is—a non-magical, humble baker who is suddenly caught up in a magical world of wizards, fantastic beasts and good and dark forces battling for control. Morton, Ejogo and Farrell handle the darker characters by showing equal measures of their less-likeable characters’ ego, arrogance, darkness, control issues and questionable actions. Farrell is particularly creepy, icky, scary and just thoroughly repulsive as a manipulative, scheming MACUSA high-level wizard official.
Three other supporting actors—Ezra Miller as Credance Barebone, Faith Wood-Blagrove as Modesty and an enchanting Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein—tackle more complex, layered characters with ease, adequately adding those extra layers to the plot with their portrayals. Credance is a troubled soul working with his overbearing, witch-crazy mom, Mary Lou; Modesty is a seemingly innocent young girl who carries all sorts of mysteries within her; and Sudol’s Queenie, who can read minds, is at once beguiling, seductive, charming and tough and savvy when she needs to be. Their parts in the overall plot are best left unexplained, so as not to spoil the story.
Thus, with great acting by a large ensemble cast, with lead characters who are likeable and approachable; concurrent darker villains who provide the suspense and conflict; strong, experienced Potter world, wizarding and fantasy direction from Yates; a fun, interesting, entertaining and layered script from Rowling; producers who are veterans of the Potter series and who understand Rowling and her world; continually-impressive, strongly-visual, elaborate, lush and dazzling production and set design, period costumes and props; amazing and also-impressive, equally-dazzling, state-of-the-art special effects; and, yes, plenty of fantastic beasts, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” ends up being a fun, recommended fantasy film.
And, it won’t be too difficult to find the location of more fantastic beasts in the near future. In a bit of a surprise, Rowling announced in October, 2016, that the “Fantastic Beasts” series will be—a five-film series, according to Variety. Really—a five-film series. “We always knew that it was going to be more than one movie — we knew that from the start — so we set a trilogy as a sort of placeholder, because we knew there would be more than one movie, “Rowling said at the Empire Theatre in London, at a Warner Bros. fan event, Variety reported. “But I’ve now done the plotting properly, so we’re pretty sure it’s going to be five movies.”
That news could be good or bad, of course, depending, naturally, on how well Rowling’s and the filmmakers’ inventive streak continues with this new wizarding world storyline, setting and set of characters. Stretching out a first, original film into a series of many films—including a possible goal of five movies total—is always risky, and the film world is, of course, full of franchise sequels that eventually diluted and eroded the series’ original-film magic and originality. But, for now, the next four proposed “Beasts” films are to be considered only in the future.
For the present, in this muggle world of ours, there’s only one “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie, and it’s well worth the time for filmgoers to head out to movie theaters during the next few weeks and find these beasts, spend some time with them, and enjoy their magical, fantastical filmic world.