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Where The Wild ‘Fantastic Beasts’ Are (Movie Review)

fantastic beasts thumbSo Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was rather delightful. Imagine that? After a successful and unprecedented series of Harry Potter films, the choice was made to develop a spin-off series and this first entry delivered. Not being personally connected to the book series or all that familiar with Potter lore in general, this felt like a “we’ll see” type of situation and see I have. Working well to deliver on setting, spectacle and charm, this film exists in a blockbuster world where films have to play to nearly all audiences and does so without compromise. There are some issues here and there concerning how to balance a couple stories, but it did little to take away from the joy felt in seeing this wizarding world be brought back to life.

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Part of the joy was seeing a conscious effort by author/screenwriter J.K. Rowling to not just remake Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Fantastic Beasts is a much different…er…beast, in that we are not dealing with beginners that will grow to be successful magicians. This story has us following adults properly trained in magic and using it as they see fit. There is also the period film aesthetic, which allows for wonderful production and costume design, shot with care by Philippe Rousselot and populated with impressive special effects.

Within this concept, the film finds us in 1926 New York, following the journey of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). A series of magic newspapers opens the film and alerts us to current events, which involve a dangerous wizard on the loose and a series of destructive events happening all over Manhattan, but really, this is a story about Newt. He has entered the city with a brief case containing a bunch of creatures and wouldn’t you know it, some of them get out. Various circumstances lead up to this, which includes the presence of a non-magical character (a No-Maj), Jacob Kowalksi (Dan Fogler) and a former detective wizard or wizard detective (better known as an Auror), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).

Basically, it’s a whole ordeal for Newt and the film has a lot of fun putting these characters together, along with the eventual arrival of Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), in an effort to pull off a fun New York story.  Looking at just this portion, the film has a breezy sense of how to have an audience watch one new beast after another be introduced and tracked down by the gang. There is also great fun in getting the chance to step inside Newt’s briefcase and see a world of beasts all living together. For a series that started off with some wacky visual portrayals of Quidditch, the special effects have certainly become a much more welcome staple of these fantasy films over the years and Fantastic Beasts does a fine job of realizing how to make these beasts fantastic.

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Of course, with the lighthearted adventure taking place, there is also a darker side to this tale, which deals with the cynical Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) and the journey of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Rowling and director David Yates do not shy away from the darker material and manage to take the opportunity to allow for some thematic material dealing with the racism at play when it comes to how American wizards treat others. It makes for understandable frustrating tension as we watch MACUSA’s president (Carmen Ejogo) try to sort out the shenanigans involving Newt, let alone the bigger issue of the mysterious destructive threat plaguing New York.

This is where Colin Farrell comes into play and sadly it is less involving. As Percival Graves, the actor is understated in the role, but also lacks the intimidation the part seems to need. Most of his story has him talking tough and stalking around the dark with Miller’s tortured character. The whole plot with Credence is interesting, as it almost plays like something out of The Witch, but it does come at a cost of taking things in a completely different tonal direction. That shouldn’t be unfamiliar, given the previous films, but there is a sense that Fantastic Beasts mashes up the wonder of the first few Harry Potters with the dark, continuity-driven elements of the last few.

Fortunately, the talent involved makes up for it. Along with the filmmakers behind the camera, this cast is quite good. Redmayne, in particular, stands out for being a different sort of star presence. Playing up both good-natured spirit and socially awkward qualities, Redmayne seems to be having a ball here. The defining qualities of who this man is are not fully explored, but the film doesn’t really need that at this moment either. He’s an animal conservationist, an introvert and one with no concern for maintaining his hair.

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Fun work also comes from Fogler, who gets to play both great comedic and emotional beats. I’ve really warmed up to Fogler over the years and this role very much suits him. Waterston and Sudol play up their roles fine as well, as female characters with agency, determination and enough sense to have fun. Sudol’s chemistry with Fogler is terrific and while being the sterner of the two, Waterston gets her own sense of absurdism, such as walking around with mustard on her lip, because chasing after Newt meant no time to consider a napkin.

What I’m getting at is the details this film happily invests itself in. The eccentricities in both the lighter and darker sides of this story do well to justify the film’s length (and it’s still shorter than many of the Potter films). Fantastic Beasts has seemingly a lot of work to do in setting up a new world for a proposed 5-film series, but that world-building is quite a lot of fun. Seeing the inner-workings of this magical 1920s setting allows for new rules and understandings, let alone sets up ideas that I would like to see explored down the line. My only wonder is what kinds of stories are next for this series, but if they are all one-shots connected by a few characters, I really wouldn’t mind.

Fantastic Beasts was something of a surprise, but I’m not sure it should have been. Yates has directed some of the better films in the Harry Potter series (Deathly Hallows Part 1 is my favorite) and Rowling’s direct involvement as screenwriter was in no way a sign of trouble. Ideally the proceeding films will know how to balance tone a bit better, but this film makes up for it by establishing that sense of wonder that should come in fantasy films. It doesn’t hurt that I really like this Newt Scamander character and will be happy to journey onward with him, especially if it means seeing multiple decades and the effect a wizarding world can have on them. That would be fantastic.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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