Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Fantastic Beasts" is pretty good and even a little Fantastic

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them Review
On paper, turning a book within a book into one movie is a risky idea. Turning that book within a book into the next big film franchise? Something that shouldn't even be attempted. But alas, here we are. David Yates, who took the reins on the last four "Harry Potter" movies returns to the wizarding world. Only this time, its in 1920's Jazz Age America and we are following a man named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former Hogwarts teacher who is now writing a book on beasts of the magical world. He goes to New York City to "get a birthday present" for a friend. 

The book 'Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them' was a textbook Harry Potter had during his first year at Hogwarts. We encounter the book in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. J.K. Rowling actually did write a version of the textbook to read under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. I never read the textbook version, but I don't know if a book that is less that 200 pages is worthy enough to become a proposed three part franchise. I have been a little critical toward the whole ordeal for awhile. I thought "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" the movie would just be a silly excuse to make more money of a franchise that ended. So color me surprised when I find out that the film is actually pretty good. Better than pretty good. "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" was something I can honestly say I didn't quite expect.

So we have Redmayne's Newt Scamander in 1920's New York. We know he's got a suitcase full of weird creatures. Everything is going fine and dandy until he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), as the two men play an accidental game of mistaken suitcases. Jacob mistakes his suitcase for Newt's, Jacob ends up letting loose several of Newt's monster friends onto the city. That's extra bad since human-wizard relations in America are much more heightened due to the fact that "something" is destroying No-Maj (American term for Muggle) property. Newt's antics catch the eye of Tina (Katherine Waterston) a former Auror who sees this case as her way back to her former glory, but who ends up helping Newt get his creatures back. While being pursued by the Magical Congress of the United States  of America (MACUSA) and an anti-witch group led by a hysteric Mary Lou Barbone (Samantha Morton).

What could have been a generic man-on-a-chase style film actually becomes something new. The visuals, as thought, are quite breath-taking. The world living inside Newt's suitcase is something of a marvel. I figured the film would be impressive technically speaking. What I didn't expect was to laugh as much as I did throughout the thing. The film is very funny. What's also surprising is the film is quite startling at times. The film put me on edge at some points. The film definitely earns its PG-13 rating and at some points pushes it. There is a subplot involving a Obscurus, a Dementor on steroids if you will, and the moments with it are quite shocking. I was amazed by what David Yates got away with in his movie.

Like with all the Harry Potter films, the cast assembled is quite impressive. Eddie Redmayne does an impeccable job creating a quirky character while also etching in the tiny details. Katie Waterston was such a discovery two years ago in "Inherent Vice," and now once again dishes a good performance, as does Dan Fogler who has flawless comedic timing. They guided by a supporting cast  that includes Jon Voight, Colin Ferrell, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo and Ron Freaking Perlman. I felt happy to step back inside the world of Harry Potter. 

The movie does a good job of not relying on callbacks on the previous Harry Potter film series for cheap lip service. Sure Dumbledore, Hogwarts and The LeStrange family get name dropped, but its kept pretty minimal. Too often, movies like this rely heavily on what came before in order to keep the cash flow coming, but Yates does a very good job of making this movie stand on its own too feet. I will put emphasis on the "pretty good" though. Its not flawless. Like too many blockbusters these days, there are plot-points that purposely unresolved in order to set up what's coming. They provide enough of an itch that says "hey, join us next time." There is a certain big actor who appears as a certain important character to Harry Potter lore, but once that actor is onscreen, he might as well look at the camera and say "see you in a few years for the sequel!" Its a pretty useless appearance and honestly does nothing to really set up anything, so why include at all? There is also a subplot involving an old love interest of Newt's. Again, there is a recognizable actress in a picture, and its pretty clear that we learn more about that in another movie, but if its going to be significant in another movie, why is it in this movie? There are only a couple instances of this happening, but its almost enough to take me out of the entire movie. We have way too many blockbusters guilty of merely advertising what's coming next instead of focusing on the movie being made, and its starting to become an issue with me.

But a couple subplot errors aren't enough to keep you out of the theater. At the very least, this film didn't feature a glowing doodad that Newt and company had to suddenly turn off in order to save the day. The film packs an adventurous punch. Its funny. Its even a little scary. Who would have thought that the reflection of a bigger franchise had so much to offer? I liked stepping in this wizarding world time machine, and I can't wait to see what's next.

FINAL GRADE: A-

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