Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie review.

It only feels like yesterday when we discovered the enchanting mysticism of the Wizarding World, when we first joined young Harry Potter and his yearly adventures and lessons within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Originally brought to life by author J.K. Rowling, herself the figure of a rags to riches tale creating a defining series of modern literature, the enchanting whimsy and epic fantasy of the universe at hand kept us engaged and enthralled all the way up to its bittersweet finale.

And yet at the same time, one thing that was very clear was that Rowling's fantastical world was bigger than her British homeland. There was surely some untapped potential to expand on the universe in more ways, perhaps even create origin tales and move to more culturally different settings. In her first screenwriting venture, that's exactly what she does with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and while she has a long way to go in the jump between mediums, her magical and enchanting touch is still felt all throughout her new spin-off.

Set in the 1920's, eccentric creature enthusiast and expert Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) leaves behind his England homeland for the urban environment of New York City. However, this is also at a time when mysterious attacks stir paranoia in the non-magical community, and threaten the exposure of the Wizarding World (here represented by the US magic branch, MACUSA). This is made worse by the creatures in Newt's suitcase breaking free and creating a stir, and with the help of unlikely Muggle companion Kowalski (Dan Fogler), disgraced former MACUSA auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), and her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol), they take to the city to round up the beasts, and discover the source of vicious attacks on its people.

Aside from the occasional callback and clever easter egg, and small tidbits reserved for franchise potential, a good quality of Fantastic Beasts is in the fact that it works very well as a standalone venture. Enjoyable regardless of your familiarity, Rowling clearly hasn't lost a step when it comes to her gargantuan world building, expanding on the previous lore and settings with an infectiously enthusiastic level of detail. The urban setting of the film gives it a particularly nice dosage of change, allowing for a rich new level of culture with the workings of the Potterverse's stateside customs, and superbly catching both newcomers and devotees to the differing terminology ("Muggles" now being known as "No-Maj"), and even using American history and religious customs to deepen Rowling's darker thematic undertones, such as Samantha Morton's strict adoptive mother who bears nothing but contempt for magic, and her family living like it's the era of the Salem Witch Hunts.

But for all the great leaps and bounds Rowling may offer in building on her universe, one hurdle she doesn't clear is in modifying herself for the cinema. It's clear that Rowling is still first and foremost an author, and so the film moves very much in the style of a novel rather than like a feature film. It's a fine method to allow for a breathier pace, but what bests her is in bringing numerous strands together in a consistent fashion. With the film often going into small tangents that seemingly have no immediacy with the central narrative, or are otherwise so underdeveloped that you wish someone had been there to give her a hand (namely the Shaw family led by Jon Voight's newspaper executive), the film unfortunately begins to meander at certain points, wishing to have someone else refine and tighten the seemingly disparate strands and expand on the personalities of supporting players. It's not enough to sink the film, and Rowling's conversion isn't as disastrous as Cormac McCarthy's with The Counselor, but when the film finally gets into its climactic twists, it's clearly in need of outside consultation.

That said, one area where Rowling still proves reliable is in her ability to craft endearing and fantastic central characters, proving that there is life to the universe beyond Harry, Ron, and Hermionie. Rowling's strengths are best embodied by Newt Scamander, an eccentric and peculiar expert who goes about his daily routines with the gleeful geeky enthusiasm of a child, and a clearly dedicated passion and connection to the animals he looks over that make the effects heavy creatures feel all the more real. Redmayne, who I cannot stress enough absolutely belongs in this universe, approaches the role with commitment and gusto, using his signature awkwardness and rambling way with words to fitting effect, anchoring the film and eliciting a number of laughs. That's another charm of the Potter films that's also present in Fantastic Beasts, in that the film is genuinely hilarious, retaining the same eccentric lightness and quirky oddities, and may actually be the most I've laughed during one of the Wizarding World movies.

But our main character is nothing without his friends, with Katherine Waterston's Tina proving a suitable foil and terrific emotional center, often looking over his actions with a critical and stern eye, while also serving as a gentle and knowledgable guide to the new setting. Alison Sudol best encapsulates the sensibilities of Rowling's quirkiness, supplying the film with tender and delightfully oddball background details, and at times seeming to channel Luna Lovegood. But the real scene stealer is Dan Fogler's Kowalski, something of a surrogate for the audiences of non-magical beings, who despite his complete lack of magical talents, injects the films with a great dosage of likable attachment and support, while also delivering some of the best laughs of the film. While other players such as Colin Farrell as an ambiguous MACUSA auror, Ezra Miller as Morton's abused adopted son, and Carmen Ejogo as the Ministry's president don't get nearly as much exposure, each of them still manage to make a mark and leave a feeling of presence.

Also making a return to the Wizarding World is director David Yates, who still continues to know the universe like the back of his hand. While the overall pace of the film may slip from his fingers at times, he still hasn't lost his knack for tonal consistency and imaginative visual storytelling, oftentimes refreshingly simplifying Rowling's expositional habits to the "show, don't tell" rules of the screen. He also gets the most out of his new and recurring technicians, with Colleen Atwood's ravishing costume design, James Newton Howard's adventurous score, and series favorite Stuart Craig's production design (which deserves serious Oscar attention) being of particular note. The effects work also proves mightily impressive, even if I wished they had been toned down a tad, with onscreen details that feel the need to be reined in or that had been created with practicality over digital, such as Ron Perlman's seedy Goblin nightclub owner.

We can only suspect how the future of the Wizarding World will unfold following Rowling's new expansion, but as I said before, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is also just as appropriate a standalone venture, expanding and enriching the mythology and the lore of the universe with the same obsessive attention that has graced every adaptation of Rowling's stories, and continues to thrive and breathe off of the life of the endearing characters. It's an exciting, funny, and rock solid new venture for the series, and while some later twists imply some worries for the future, the film is otherwise a great promise of things to come.

**** / *****

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