Review - 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'
The Harry Potter series is a pretty tough act to follow, especially when you have to make a film about one of the foot-note characters in the series. Newt Scamander isn't a character that you would imagine would spawn a franchise of his own yet J.K. Rowling and director David Yates make a decent case for why we should return to this world. While Fantastic Beasts doesn't reach the heights of any of the Harry Potter films; it still holds its own despite having a few fundamental problems.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is based off of the book by J.K. Rowling which itself is based upon the fictional textbook in the Harry Potter film series. This reinterpretation of the text tells the tale of mythical beast-lover Newt Scamander as he travels to New York in 1926. Upon his arrival his life is disrupted by the escape of some of his creatures, a mysterious and sinister disturbance and Jacob, a muggle (non-magic human), or as the Americans call them; No-Maj.
This film is a competent if flawed prequel series to the Harry Potter films. I love the time period and the fact that it takes place in New York City. The industrial, art-deco look of the city suits the film well and gives it a very nice aesthetic. I'm also glad that Yates and Rowling decided to distance the material from the Harry Potter series as it helps the property have an identity of its own, though there are plenty of call-backs here and there. The film is also never boring; there's a snappiness to the pacing that ensures that you won't nod off at any point, even if it doesn't make sense at times.
I was going to compare Fantastic Beasts to Harry Potter again by mentioning that I missed the general sense of wonder and world-building in those films that is not as present here. Then I realized that I actually liked that Fantastic Beasts took a different approach. The movie sort of reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr., only with magic grafted on top. Don't get me wrong, there are still moments of wonder to be had here, just don't expect to be transported to a different world.
My problems arise with the movie's general lack of direction; there are times when the film comes off as almost completely aimless, especially in the first half. The film can't tell which plot-lines are more central so it often comes off as jerky in its machinations. Around the half-way point the film finally figures out what the more important story to tell is and sticks with it, but up until then it was hard to figure out what was being prioritized. In addition to being meandering, the central mystery seemed half-baked and in the end results in a bland exercise in the typical monotony of CGI we've come to expect from tent-pole blockbusters.
The huge, muddled CGI finale at the end of Fantastic Beasts worried me about the future prospects of this new franchise, then Yates gave me the ending that I really wanted. I was caught off guard by how bitter-sweet and poignant the final moments of this film were. The end is very much focused on the characters and the relationships they established throughout the film, which was comforting because up until then I was beginning to think that Yates was valuing spectacle over everything else.
Thankfully, we have some pretty great characters to carry us through the tedious plot. Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander is an inspired casting decision. He brings a pleasant, awkward charm to the proceedings and while he doesn't have a very memorable arc, he does a lot with what he's given. I think the biggest hit of the film actually comes from his sidekick, Jacob, played by Dan Fogler. He's sort of the comedic relief but he also has a heart of gold and is completely endearing and likable. Katherine Waterston is also good as Tina Worstein, a former Auror who accompanies Scamander. She's a character that displays a general obliviousness while also being entirely confident and knowledgeable. Alison Sudal plays the immensely likable Queenie; who is the kindest of characters and shares a mutual infatuation with Fogler's Jacob character. Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, a character of questionable loyalty who has one of the more interesting subplots in the film. Finally, Jon Voight is also in this for no reason at all, he gets a couple of lines, none of which are memorable and then he's gone.
Fantastic Beasts is shot very well and Yates has brought 1920's New York to life in a convincing and faithful way. The effects-work is generally pretty good, save for some of the beasts that stick out like a sore thumb in the otherwise very realistically-conceived world. One of my main annoyances I have with this film is how long it lingers on its CGI creations. I don't like watching scenes where someone is chasing something that is obviously not real, which happens many times in this film. There's just no tension at all when you don't believe something on the screen is actually there. I was constantly inundated by these scenes where Scamander is dealing with his unruly creatures' antics, and it can be a drag to watch sometimes. That said, some of the beasts are very well-conceived and have more believable interactions with Newt, which makes up for some of the more obnoxious sequences.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may have plenty of glaring flaws, but it also has heart and great characters. The film is never boring and pulls you into a world brimming with imagination, even if it doesn't always aim for the stars. If you've been missing Harry Potter, this isn't going to take its place, but it might scratch that itch between those yearly marathon viewings.