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Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them Review: “Fantasy Will Set You Free”

fantasticbeastsposter_0We should not be surprised. Not really.  Not with every studio chasing a franchise with which to anchor their slate of movies. Disney has Marvel and Pixar and Star Wars. Sony has James Bond. Fox has the X-Men. Paramount has Star Trek and Transformers.  Universal has Fast & Furious, Despicable Me and monsters like King Kong. Warner Brothers had Harry Potter — a veritable cash cow — which ended with Deathly Hallows, Part 2.  And despite the continued support for the books, the movies and the studio parks — the Wizarding World of Harry Potter being an awesome stop at Universal Studios — the fact is that they haven’t been able to keep that going as a franchise.  Well, not until now.

Based on the companion to the book series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the hope by Warner Bros is that this movie is the start of a new franchise that expands the Wizarding World and gives fans of the Boy Who Lived the fix they haven’t had since he stood as a grownup on Platform 9 ¾.  And there’s reason to believe there’s a hunger for it with the success of the adapted play, “Harry Potter & The Cursed Child.”  Put simply, the kids and tweens who grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron haven’t lost their appetite for the Wizarding World.  They just haven’t had anything new to sate them. Until now.

Fantastic Beasts is the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist or expert on magical creatures who arrives in New York in 1927 during his travels studying magical creatures around the globe. This is a different world than the one we know. Magic is meant to be kept hidden; which has caused some wizards to want to rebel against the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) and its President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). Of these, the biggest threat is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who wishes to dominate No-Majs (their term for ordinary humans). Anti-magical organizations like the “New Salemers”, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), rail against the idea of wizards and witchcraft in broad daylight. And in the middle of all this, Newt confuses his case of magical beasties with that of factory worker/hopeful-baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and several get out. Before long, Newt, Jacob, former Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) are all caught in the chase for the magical animals as both magical and non-magical forces seem drawn towards the conflict their revelation will create.

fantastic-beasts-colin-farrell-as-percival-gravesFor a plot that’s looking to do a ton of world-building and a movie that’s looking to set up a further four films, the thing that surprised me the most was how light it all was.  The movie is quite simple and easy and you’re rarely lost.  Working off the script by J.K. Rowling, director David Yates — who helmed the adaptations of the last three Harry Potter books — does his usual best to build 1920s New York and populate it with magic.  He uses the same visual cues and effects to connect this movie and those that came before. The magic spells work the same way. The duels between wizards move just as those did when it was Harry versus Voldemort.

What’s obvious and interesting is how much more grown-up the Wizarding World is here. Since we’re talking adult witches and wizards and not kids/teens, we get to see speakeasies and we get to see wizard execution chambers. We see the leaders of the wizards ordering the death of young uncontrollable witches and wizards. We see how Aurors like Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) use squibs — people born from magical bloodlines with no powers — like Credence (Ezra Miller) to infiltrate organizations; even when they’re the cause of tremendous pain.  In short, while the movie is aimed at kids and teens, it makes it clear that this is a world without the relative safety net of the halls of Hogwarts or the professors who shepherd their students.

At its heart are Newt and his creatures.  Academy Award-winner Redmayne creates a Newt that is all ticks and sideway glances.  You get the sense from him that he’s not sure of how to interact with the world at large.  He’s more comfortable with his magical beasties than he is with most people. Reasons are hinted at but never stated.  And while we get hints, all the answers to Newt are not revealed here. It creates a character that starts cold and gets warmer but one that remains somewhat distant throughout the movie.  Much of the same can be also said about Waterston’s Tina, whose only goal is to be reinstalled as an Auror and seems fixated on Newt as the way to make it happen. She’s kind of like a big sister who is always stopping the fun by pointing out all the rules that are being broken.  Though the movie wants to set up a Newt and Tina relationship, it doesn’t quite come off as it should. I get the sense that that aspect, as well as Tina, will be plumbed in further movies for more depth.  bowtruckle-newt-fantastic-beasts.jpg

This leaves the heart of the story in the hands of Fogler’s Jacob. As the No-Maj getting introduced to the Wizarding World, it is his experiences that mostly mirror the audience’s.  The surprise is that not only does he do this well, it is wonderful to behold. His Jacob is a good man; desperate for a chance to break out of the doldrum life as a factory worker. He is equal parts amazed and enraptured by the magic, the beasts and by Sudol’s Queenie. The two of them happen to have the meet-cute moment and engage in the relationship that everyone roots for. Queenie is a Legilimens — a Wizard able to read minds — and though limited by her time to a secretary, she manages to be tenacious, courageous and fun. Honestly, Jacob and Queenie are half the fun of the movie and part of me wishes they had dumped their boring counterparts in Newt and Tina.

The rest of the cast does a solid job, even if it’s just placeholders for the further adventures. I’ll point out Farrell as Graves who does a great job of reminding you why he’s such a great actor. He’s both haughty and harrowing as the Head of MACUSA Security who is looking into the New Salemers.  Samantha Morton cannot help but be solidly hateable as Mary Lou while Ezra Miller portrays her adopted son, Credence, with the kind of pathetic and obviously repressed rage that both are memorable.  If there’s any message in this movie, it’s about how the biggest monsters are born when people seek to ignore the true nature of others around them.

Let me give the usual kudos to the people working behind the scenes.  Composer James Newton Howard does a good job of channeling John Williams’ classic Potter compositions and adapting it to 1920s New York.  Fantastic Beasts - Queenie & Jacob.jpgLikewise the production design team led by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge as well as the art direction team led by David Allday and the costumes by Colleen Atwood give us a New York that feels both real as well as magical. All work well under Yates and, as I keep saying, give us a world of witchcraft and wizardry that is both familiar as well as new; that is welcoming and dangerous.  

If it sounds like I’m lukewarm about the movie, let me dispel that right now. I liked it.  When Fantastic Beasts drops its franchise pretenses and shows, it is charming and fun. The bestiary that Newt carries in his suitcase is nothing but eye candy — whether it’s the devious Niffler or the breathtaking Occamy or the fearsome Graphorns.  It isn’t surprising that this is when Redmayne’s Newt comes most alive.  It’s as if that’s when his character is truly alive.  You’re going to want to spend as much time with them as possible. Major kudos to the visual artists at Framestore who bring them alive in such great detail.  

It’s interesting that when the movie forgets it’s a franchise and just goes with the story it’s trying to tell, it is fun. The visit into the suitcase. The escape from MACUSA’s office.  Attracting the Erumpent via mating call.  They’re all highlights because the movie is letting the characters be themselves and free and there’s no sense of rushing to establish some new element.  It is here that the movie’s quality really shines.  Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob are being themselves.  They’re allowed to be interesting and courageous and have agency.

Ultimately it is this need to set up the future franchise that holds Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them back. I haven’t even mentioned Jon Voight’s Henry Shaw Sr, a No-Maj media magnate, or his sons.  fantastic-beasts-graphornOr Ron Perlman’s Gnarlack, a goblin gangster. Or the picture of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) that Newt still carries around with him.  Or the obvious Gellert Grindelwald.  All of them and more are elements meant to populate this more grown-up Wizarding World and expand into further adventures for Newt and his friends. When the movie gets out of its way and focuses on the mission at hand, it is a great time. Enough to still recommend.

Just hope the next one is even better. Warner Brothers will want it to be to keep their new franchise going and fans satisfied.

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