Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them Review
A RETURN TO THE WIZARDING WORLD
The Harry Potter movie franchise stands tall and proud in movie history. Based on the worldwide bestselling books by J.R. Rowling, this cinematic franchise (eight feature films in total) spanned over a decade from its first installment in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to its epic conclusion in 2011 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Sure, there were skeptics out there that the franchise would falter, but its ultra-popular success is undeniably, with millions of fans immersing themselves in this movie universe and raking in huge dollars at the box office. Like it’s source material, each Potter film became more elaborate and complex, delving deeper into Harry Potter’s journey and the Wizarding World that he inhabits. The visuals improved, the acting got better, the story became more engaging and darker, and each one became that more satisfying to watch. Many studios have tried to copy the franchise’s success of adapting popular young reader series (i.e. Chronicles of Narnia, Eragon, Percy Jackson, etc.), but, unlike to those franchise potentials, Harry Potter’s popularity continued to flourish with each new film release. It’s been five years since the Harry Potter movie franchise concluded and (just like its whole franchise), the overall “Pottermania” is thriving, with Rowling’s empire expanding beyond the books and films. From clothing apparel, to amusement parks, to a stage play, and many other media outlets, the world is not ready to say goodbye to Rowling’s Wizarding World. This, of course, brings us to present as Warner Bros Pictures, director David Yates, and author J.K. Rowling present the start of a brand new cinematic journey (and film saga) in the Potter’s Wizarding World with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. With a new time period and new characters, does this prequel adventure match the palpable success of its Harry Potter predecessors or does this spin-off tale fail to capture the magic of what “the boy who lived” once had?
Set many years before Harry Potter received his acceptance letter to Hogwarts, Fantastic Beasts is set in 1926 and follows English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Arriving in America (New York), Newt carries a special suitcase, filled with incredible magical creatures, with plans to further his studies in a new land. However, after a mistaken suitcase mix-up with aspiring baker shop owner Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the some of these fantastic creatures are accidentally released in New York City, threatening to cause chaos with the local non-magical people aka No-Majs (the US version of Muggles) Targeted for arrest by Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a flunky at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), Newt is brought in for questioning, only to find assistance is required to retrieve all the magical creatures from wreaking havoc on the No-Majs. Racing around New York City collecting the escaped beasts, Newt and Porpentina are confronted with disastrous possibilities, joined by Jacob and Porpentina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who takes a shine to Jacob. Meanwhile, with rumors of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the loose, tensions are high in the Wizarding World, finding Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), an Auror and Director of Magical Security for the MACUSA, on the case as well trying to decipher some recent attacks that are causing panic with the local No-Majs, pressing Credence (Ezra Miller), the gawky son of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, who’s mission to expose wizarding community.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
What can I say…. I absolutely love everything Harry Potter. I’ve read all the books, participated in the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I worked Borders Books when the seventh got released. I dressed up as Viktor Krum!), and I’ve been to Harry Potter World several times at Universal Studios in Orlando (got my wand from Ollivander’s shop in Diagon Alley). So yes…I still have “Potter fever” and I’m proud of it. As for the movies, I absolutely love them. Probably my two favorite are Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows Part 2. I did plan on doing a review for each movie (a sort of “legacy review” for all the Harry Potter films), but I got bogged down doing other movie reviews, so I didn’t get to do it (probably going to do it next year or right before Fantastic Beasts 2 comes out). As I said above, the Harry Potter films saga was (and still is) a celebrated movie franchise, that captivated an entire movie generation with its story, its characters, and cinematic representations of Rowling’s Wizarding World. Personally, like many out there, I was saddened to see the saga end in Deathly Hallows Part 2, but deeply satisfied on the epic journey in the eight Potter films.
This, of course, brings me back to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Like many Potter fans, I was super excited when I heard the news that a new film saga, which was set in Rowling’s Wizard World, was going to be released. I anxiously waited, soaking up all the internet newsfeeds and all the movie trailers releases with much anticipation to finally see this sort of prequel-spin off tale of the wizard Newt Scamander. Well…what did I think of it? I loved it. With only a few setup problems, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fantastic offshoot adventure to Harry Potter that has all the wizardry fun of before, while also expanding on the Wizarding World. It can’t beat out the Potter films, but it’s still a nice extension in this magical cinematic universe.
Of course, the main thing that many moviegoers will automatically do is to compare Fantastic Beasts to the eight Harry Potter films, which I think you shouldn’t as you will be a bit disappointed with this new movie if you do so. A viewer should treat Fantastic Beasts should try to separate the two, with Beasts as a new branch that’s part of Rowling’s “Wizarding World” tree. Basically, think about Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth sagas (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy). Both take place in the same cinematic universe, but The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was produced first, which was then followed by The Hobbit Trilogy some years later. Rings was critically praised by fans, critics, and moviegoers as Hobbit was also praised by those same people, but (for most) plays “second fiddle” to its trilogy predecessor. The same will probably go for the Fantastic Beasts saga in comparison to the Harry Potter saga. However, a viewer must try to differentiate the two film sagas to fully enjoy each one. Yes, Fantastic Beasts won’t have the overall excitement of following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of their friends through their misadventure school years at Hogwarts, but this new movie (as well as this new franchise) will find its own excitement (its own groove) within the Wizarding World. In short, try not to compare “apples to apples” of the two sagas. Fantastic Beasts still has “the magic” of the Wizarding World, just not Harry Potters.
Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who is a veteran of the Potter films, with directing the last four installments (Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2). It’s probably that reason why Warner Bros. decided to reselect Yates again as the director of this new Harry Potter spin-off film (and he is for the entire five films of this new movie saga). With that being said, Yates returns to the Wizarding World with vigor, establishing a new cinematic playground for witches, wizards, monsters, and No-Majs to inhabitant. Because of his previous involvement with past features, Yates’s directorial style is felt in Fantastic Beats (in a good way) and seems familiar with how to present such a magical tale of witches and wizards to us (the viewers).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fantastic Beasts is that its penned by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Being the creator mind behind Harry Potter and of the entire Wizarding World, Rowling’s imagination is allowed to expand, beyond the seven Potter Books, telling a brand-new story within a whole new time period. The world is familiar with the English setting of the Wizarding World (i.e. London, Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic, etc.), so it quite a unique experience that Rowling’s gets to showcase a whole new region of her Wizarding World with American lifestyle of New York City (circa 1926) and their magical order (the MACUSA). The same can be said with the story’s characters, allowing Rowling’s to move beyond Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of Hogwarts characters (students and staff) to highlight new ones such as Newt, Tina, Queenie, Jacob, and the rest. Lastly, because of Fantastic Beasts is not adapted from one of her books (they will be releasing the film’s screenplay in a similar book format like the stage play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), it’s kind of exciting to see a new story unfold that we (the viewers) don’t already know beforehand. Personally, I’m very curious to see where the rest of this prequel spin-off saga will go next and where it will ultimately end on.
As for the film’s production quality, it’s definitely solid, mixing both new and old familiars within Fantastic Beasts. What I mean is that the story’s new setting allows Yate’s filmmaking staff to create the look and style of the “roaring 20s” of New York City from locales and set pieces to the stylish costume designs (created by Colleen Atwood). In contrast, Fantastic Beasts looks and feels like a Potter film. From its cinematography shots by Philippe Rousselot to its score, composed by James Newton Howard, it just feels like pleasant return to the Potter films (in terms of filmmaking nuances), despite the fact that it technically isn’t a Potter film. I know that’s kind of hard to express properly, but if you’ve watched those eight movies as much as I have, you’ll know what I mean. As a side-note, the movie also name drops a lot of familiar names, places, and terminology, including various spell names, Aurors, Muggles, Gellert Grindelwald, Hogwarts, and the first mentioning (in the movies) of llvermony, the American Wizarding School (at least I think they mentioned it).
Of course, the film’s main highlight is seeing all the fantastic beasts in Fantastic Beasts. All of them are completely creative and cool-looking, each rendered beautifully with an intricate design. The first time traveling down Newt’s suitcase to see all the various creatures, I squeal with delight. Never before in the Harry Potter films have we seen fantastical creatures such as these and it was definitely really exciting to see. As a side-note, while I do like all the fantastic creatures that are in Newt’s suitcases, it’s kind of hard to remember all of their names (i.e. Niffler, Erumpent, Occamy, Dougal, etc.)
Unfortunately, there are problems within Fantastic Beasts that do become problematic in its storytelling. With this movie set in a new era, a new location, and a set of new characters, the film needs to spend a lot of time establishing / introducing its setting. While this a problem, which can hurt the film overall likeability and create some pacing issues, I kind of felt that it was a necessary problem. As I said, it’s almost a completely new world (albeit set in the Wizarding World) as Yates needs time to introduce 1926 New York City, the Wizarding community of the MACUSA, and America’s No-Majs. So think of this problem as a necessary evil of sorts as I believe that future installments will fare better with a more establish setting within the timeframe of the Fantastic Beast’s franchise. In conjunction with that, another problem is the same problem that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone for the non-US viewers) faced when it was turned into a movie. Since this movie (Fantastic Beasts) is the start of a new film series, its seems sometimes unsure of how to proceed, which slightly comes from its director’s ultimate direction. This is strange as Yates is pretty well-versed in the cinematic Wizarding World, but, being the first installment, Fantastic Beasts sometimes loose its footing in untested waters. Again, this is new setting, new cast of actors / characters, and a new time period. However, I think it should be cleared up by the next film or (at the very least) the third installment.
Those two problems are more minor ones. However, my bigger complaint is with the film’s pacing issues. As I praise the visuals effects and the overall designs of all the various fantastical creatures, when these computer-generated beings are not on screen, the story’s pacing (sometimes) dips, lowering the excitement level down as well as a viewer’s overall engagement. It’s not that it becomes downright boring, but there are several sequences that seem to drag a bit here and there, loosening interest in some character moments as we (the viewers) eagerly await the next scene with some fantastic beasts. Another problem (another minor one) is the film’s plot can be a bit convoluted at times if you’re not paying attention. I care about Newt’s story in recapturing his creatures, I care about the MACUSA’s worry of risking exposure from the No-Majs, but I only half cared about the Credence’s storyline as it was handled in clunky matter, a piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit quite well with the other two narrative threads.
Just as the Harry Potter films followed a trio of characters (Harry, Ron, and Hermione), Fantastic Beasts follows a quartet of primary characters in Newt, Tina, Queenie, and Jacob, with Newt Scamander being the film’s main protagonist. Played by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, known for his roles in The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl, Newt is a shy and eccentric character, a person who cares for more of the company of his creatures than of human beings (be it magical or non-magical ones), one that has a endearing likeable quality to him. Redmayne embraces those idiosyncrasies of Newt, easily expressing those traits through body and language and facial twitches. He may not have that commanding presence that Daniel Radcliffe had with Harry Potter (especially in the latter installments), but Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is a perfect fit for the role of Newt in Fantastic Beasts.
Aiding Redmayne’s Newt is the character of Tina, Queenie, and Jacob, played by actresses Katherine Waterson, Alison Sudol, and actor Dan Fogler. Waterson, known for her roles in Inherent Vice and Steve Jobs, does a really good job as Tina (or rather Porpentina Goldstein). A lot of her scenes with Redmayne’s Newt are great and the character is an interesting one (I wonder if she going to be back for the sequels). Alison Sudol’s Queenie, Tina’s mind-reading sister, is a nice addition, but more in the background of the quartet. She has several humorous bits (most involving Fogler’s Jacob) and is definitely “easy on the eyes”, but her character gets the “short end” of the stick as she really doesn’t have much to do in the main plot, beyond a few scenes here and there. Lastly, Dan Fogler, known for playing comedy roles, does exactly that in Fantastic Beasts, playing the role of the American No-Maj Jacob Kowalski. He brings a lot humor to the movie (if not all of it) and is an excellent supporting character to add comedic levity to counterbalance some of the more serious scenes. As a side-note, how he laughs in the movie is hysterical.
Next, there is Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller, who both have large supporting roles in the movie as MACUSA Auror Perceval Graves and the timid Credence Barebone. Farrell performs well as the no-nonsense Graves, commanding his presence when on-screen (he looks pretty cool in his character’s outfit), while Miller’s handles the shy and awkward ways of Credence. As I said, both are important players in the story, so I don’t want to spoil it for my readers. Suffice to say that both Farrell and Miller are great in Fantastic Beasts. The rest of the cast are more supporting minor character that help fill in the gaps in the story here and there and drive the narrative forward. This includes Samantha Morton as the extremists group leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society (the NSPS, or “The Second-Salemers”) Mary Lou Barebone, Carmen Ejogo as the stalwart President of the MACUSA Seraphina Picquery, Ron Perlman as the Goblin gangster nightclub owner Gnarlack, and Jon Voight as the No-Majs Henry Shaw, Sr. All these characters are good and are portrayed by talented actors / actresses, but these roles more like “window dressing” for the feature, which, to me, is fine.
J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World returns to the big screen in the highly anticipated film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Director David Yates newest film invites its viewers to return to Rowling’s magical world in a new era, place, and characters. The movie does stumble slightly in a few spots and it’s not as powerful or as prolithic as its predecessor saga, but it still is a fun ride with some interesting story elements and some creative designs for it fantastical creatures. Personally, I loved it. Yes, it wasn’t Harry Potter, but it was still a highly enjoyable spin-off adventure, which has a promising future in its sequential sequels, and did met my somewhat high expectations. Thus, I would say that Fantastic Beasts is highly recommended. Avid / diehard Potter fans will thoroughly enjoy this film as well as those moviegoers who enjoyed the Harry Potter films (even if they wouldn’t admit it). With the first installment completed, Fantastic Beasts paves the way for a “brave new world” in Rowling’s world of Witches, Wizards, and other magical creatures. How the rest of the new franchise will shape up is unclear, but, for now, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an entertaining spin-off tale to the Harry Potter brand and an exciting way to return to the Wizarding World once again.
4.4 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: November 18th, 2016
Reviewed On: November 18th, 2016
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence