‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (2016) – 4/10

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Last week I went to the cinema to finally see ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. This is the latest instalment from J.K. Rowling, the author of the hugely popular Harry Potter series, and is based on a book written by Rowling in 2001 (under the pen name of the fictitious Newt Scamander) about the magical creatures in the wizarding world. I have held back on writing this review, as I wanted to have time to fully digest the movie / give an accurate review on how I truly feel about this film.

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is directed by David Yates (who directed the last 4 Harry Potter films), and is set in 1926, and begins with the British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York City by boat en route to Arizona. On his journey, Scamander encounters Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) a “No-Maj” (non-magical) woman who, along with the help of her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller) and other adoptive children, runs the New Salam Philanthropic Society, which claims that witches and wizards are real and dangerous. As Scamander listens to one of her speeches, a Niffler (one of his “Fantastic Beasts”) escapes from his magical suitcase, which he uses to transport magical creatures. As he attempts to recapture this, he accidentally swaps suitcases with another “No-Maj” called Jacob Kowlaski (Dan Fogler) and more “Fantastic Beasts” accidentally escape. This is witnessed by demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard within the US, and takes him on to the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) headquarters, hoping to regain her former position. However, President Seraphina Picquery (Carman Ejogo) and Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) dismiss her.

A series of storylines then develops as more creatures escape. Newt and Jacob team up to try and recapture these, but face opposition from both the MACUSA and New Salem Philanthropic Society as a magical Obscurus (a dark ominous force) threatens the entire city, which many assume to be one of Newt’s “Fantastic Beasts”.

I am quite well-read on the Harry Potter series, but sadly have not yet had chance to read this short book, so am unsure as to how accurate the plot follows the actual book. Nonetheless, I did want to keep this movie separate from my feelings about Harry Potter, so it is probably for the best that I went into the cinema with no presumptions. All I had to go on, when entering the cinema, were adverts I had seen on television, so was very excited to see the “Fantastic Beasts”, action and the 1920s American setting of this magical world.

I will begin by saying that I can obviously see the ties within this magical world to that of Harry Potter (especially as the wizarding school ‘Hogwarts’ is referenced on multiple occasions) . Nonetheless, I like the fact that ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ has offered a specific glimpse into the American side of the wizarding world. For instance, the idea of a “No-Maj” being the American equivalent of a “Muggle”, and it being entirely set in New York City. Similarly, I like the fact that this film is set in the 1920s, and so pre-dates the actions of Harry Potter (who is born at the beginning of the 90s). Therefore, I can obviously see how this film begins to bridge certain gaps within the wizarding world in terms of chronology. However, these intended bridges turned out to cause me more confusion than clarity. I could not work out how the magical world seems to have regressed rather than progressed from the 1920s to the 1990s…. Characters within ‘Fantastic Beasts’ were able to conjure extremely powerful spells without uttering incarnations at certain points (which I thought was only possible by extremely powerful wizards). Likewise, entire buildings are rebuilt at certain points in the film, which again, I thought was not entirely possible…

I could easily be proven wrong on this (as, I have said, I am not well read on this period of wizarding history), but I felt as though this film created certain situations where magic was used excessively  without any feasible explanation, whereas the Harry Potter franchise of films were diligent in sticking to the strict wizarding rules (as explained in the books). Therefore,  I felt as though the special effects used in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ were used to dazzle the audience, and so their feasibility of use was explained away with the line ‘oh it’s magic’. This is especially evident in the way that the film concludes – which culminates in a chase scene and showdown that is actually quite underwhelming…

Nonetheless, I thought that the setting and costumes were so effing classy! I love America in the 1920s. This is my favourite time period. I like the style, the music and the overall culture, which I feel this film perfectly captures. I like the fact that the film actually looks like it is filmed on a 1950s American studio set capturing the 1920s. I like the colour of the film, and aside from the excessive use of special effects (as mentioned above), I thought that the overall look of the film was extremely pleasing.

Although I liked the appearance of this film, I was underwhelmed by its editing, in terms of how the plot was pieced together. I do appreciate that this film is called ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, so scenes involving the “Fantastic Beasts” were obviously vital. However, I felt that these were painted into the film extremely intricately in comparison to other parts of the film, which were skimmed over with broad brush strokes. For example, I feel that the narrative surrounding the Obscurus needed more attention, and that filling in the background around this earlier in the film would have enabled the film to develop the much needed mystery that it required, enabling it to turn into the thriller movie that it hinted it was going to turn into (but sadly didn’t). Instead, the film added unnecessary scenes at the end of the film, to blatantly show the outcome of certain character. The beauty of film is less is more, so I feel that they could have gotten away without these scenes, allowing the audience to come to their own assumptions, which would have neatened the ending at least up. Similarly, the movie kept going backwards and forwards to scenes that it could have handled in a more succinct way the first time around. It felt like they had loads of ideas for this film, and wanted to get them in one way or another, but it just didn’t work…

In terms of acting, I think that amazing actors were used but not to their full potential. I really love Ezra Miller (he is amazing in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ (2011)) and Colin Farrell has really come into his own lately (‘The Lobster’ (2015) is so unnerving in the best way) – but both their performances were hindered by a weak plot (weakened unnecessarily by the way it was edited), and so the atmosphere that these actors usually create was diluted. Nonetheless, I thought Eddie Redmayne was a good lead, but thought that his ‘dance’ (a mating ritual with one of the “Fantastic Beasts”) was unnecessary, and that he definitely drew on his past parts as an awkward Brit (which many might not like, but I think worked). However, I was not completely balled over by Dan Fogler – I thought that his character as Jacob, as a “No-Maj”, bought into the world of magic too quickly, and was quite annoying (not endearing like is obviously intended)…

Ultimately, I went into the cinema with mixed emotions, and what I thought the film was going to be about was diluted by the need to please (i.e. show how film has developed in its ability to capture magic and spells since Harry Potter). The film should have either focused on the “Fantastic Beasts” or focused more on setting this franchise up (as another 5 films are still to be released). This film felt rushed (despite it being such a long and, in some parts, unnecessarily drawn out film), and could have been made neater and clearer. Similarly,  I think that this film was clearly a film made for an American audience (instead of a Harry Potter based audience), which worked in terms of setting, but I did not love the humour.

This film was, sadly, a whole not of nothing, and I just hope that the book was better than the film, and that the films to come are better…

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