Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Rating

Director

David Yates

Screenplay

J.K. Rowling

Length

133 min.

Starring

Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Allison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, Josh Cowdery, Ronan Raftery, Ron Perlman

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for some fantasy action violence

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Soundtrack

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Source Material

Review

Required reading for first-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a compendium of magical beasts and all that a witch or wizard would want to know about them. Taking the subject matter of a single book in the curriculum of the Harry Potter universe might seem like a strange decision, but the end results are no less magical than one would expect.

The film takes place in 1927 New York City as the eventual book author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) seeks to purchase a rare dragon on the magical black market. Entering the city, he finds himself caught in the midst of a strange case involving young witches and wizards who have so strongly suppressed their magical abilities that the blackened spirits, called Obscura, that embody them threaten to wreck the entire city and expose the wizarding world to the No-Majes (the American word for Muggles).

At his side are an ex-auror (Katherine Waterston) seeking to regain her position at MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America, the counterpart to Britain’s Ministry of Magic); her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol); and the No-Maj lug (Dan Fogler) who gets pulled into the action. The rest of the cast is filled with individuals who vary in their mostly nefarious goals. Colin Farrell plays an Auror (magical police) seeking one of these blackened souls; Samantha Morton takes on the role of a New Salemite (anti-witch crusader); Ezra Miller is her physically-abused son; and Carmen Ejogo is the MACUSA president hopelessly devoted to the strict rules they have put in place.

Redmayne is boyishly charming as Newt, the British wizard who cares more about the animals in his possession than about the witches, wizards, and no-majes around him. Contained within an extra-dimensional space hidden in his suitcase, Newt has created a sanctuary for some of the rarest, most endangered species in existence. Those creatures are protected as long as those around him don’t destroy them.

Colin Farell plays a compelling foil as the head Auror whose mysterious goals are slowly revealed as the film plays on. Waterston is solid as the woman who initially arrests Newt and then unwittingly gets drawn into his affairs. Fogler is the soul of the film, creating a witty, warm figure for the audience to latch onto. Were Redmayne not so aloof, this character might not be necessary; however, he brings plenty of balance to his compatriot. Sudol’s character is strongly written, but not incredibly deep, giving Sudol little to do with her. She does fine with that. The rest of the cast is solid, ensuring that the film feels like a natural extension of the Potter universe.

Under the direction of David Yates, who finished out the Harry Potter series, this magical film is filled to the brim with brilliant effects, daring originality, and plenty of atmospheric quality. The film’s plot is a bit overburdened, weaving in a couple of useless plot lines (that may be embellished later on), but it all seems fitting for a setup to future endeavors. A major 11th-hour cameo is disappointing, but the overall content of the film is engaging for any Harry Potter fan. Astute viewers will spot or hear all sorts of references to the future world of Harry Potter, but the expanded universe of this film gives one hope that future installments will be a bit more self-contained while progressing the storyline more effectively.

One of the elements of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world that is so striking is how effortlessly she makes the craft of storytelling feel. Years of practice have honed her skills of creating immeasurable detail in a seemingly confined universe. Integrating new stories into preexisting narrative structures is a daunting task and Rowling is more than capable. As a screenwriter, she understands how to drive a plot forward with few exceptions. Those exceptions could be marvelously crafted building blocks for future concepts and ideas that will play out over the course of the five-film series. Considering how the original Harry Potter books and films were structured, it’s likely we’re looking at the tip of a very big iceberg.

What’s most magical about Rowling’s writing is how she can take a period of history so far removed from our own and find the elements of it that best relate to the modern world. She then takes those concepts and creates parallel philosophical structures that play out most wonderfully. The repressive nature and conservative ideals of the 1920s compare well to the issues facing the United Kingdom and the United States today. Demagogues running roughshod over the people and convincing them of the value of their beliefs while stamping out those that oppose them is just a singular example. She understands history and wants to make sure it isn’t so forcefully repeated. How far she takes this series toward the inevitable conflict of World War II remains to be seen, but with the sociopolitical environment detailed in this film, it’s certain that something similar may be brewing.

Any fan of the Harry Potter franchise, whether the books or the movies, owes it to themselves to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While there are only a handful of references directly to the prior efforts, the world building on display is spectacular. Rowling’s strongest talents are in creating magical realism and exploring the dark recesses, and humanity, of the mind. This film plays to those strengths incredibly well.

Spoiler Discussion

J.K. Rowling is a progressive woman. Her books have gone to great lengths to encourage children to appreciate others and recognize hate and bigotry where it hides, helping future generations root out such despicable characteristics and push towards a brighter future. Fantastic Beasts does a decent job applying these concepts to more adult endeavors. She is absolutely dedicated to ensuring broad diversity for her literary and cinematic fans.

As Fantastic Beasts employs more adult-friendly concepts, one such idea makes its fascinating first appearance in this film; however, it doesn’t become completely clear until the final reel when the film’s early references to Grindelwald pay off.

In the lore that Rowling has constructed around the Harry Potter universe, it has been revealed that Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster at Hogwarts, was gay. It has also been established that before ultimately defeating Gellert Grindelwald, Dumbledore had romantic feelings towards him. I bring this all up for one of the biggest a-ha moments I had thinking back on the film. From here on out, I will reveal details about Grindelwald and who plays him, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you are forewarned.

As Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) continues his pursuit of an the Obscurus that is terrorizing the city, he forms an intimate bond with Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). This is displayed in nearly every scene between them, romantic tension between readily apparent. This seemed a bit odd to me as the character was not given much backstory. That was until after it’s revealed that Graves is actually Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in magical disguise. At that moment, all the pieces fall into place. Considering Grindelwald’s sexuality and the way he used that sexuality to convince Credence to help him, it’s one of the most intense and satisfying gestalt moments I’ve had contemplating a film afterwards.

The unfortunate part is that we won’t likely get more Farrell in future films. We will also be stuck seeing more burdensome Depp mugging for the rest of the series. This was the “disappointing” cameo I referenced earlier.

Oscar Prospects

Probables: Production Design, Costume Design, Visual Effects
Potentials: Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

Review Written

December 6, 2016

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