Friday, December 2, 2016

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" Review: Beasts Aren't The Only Fantastic Things Found Here


Movie franchises are the bread and butter of the film industry. While they dabble in experimental projects from time to time more often than not the big film industries rely on the steady paychecks that big franchises bring in and one of the biggest of all time is the Harry Potter series. Ever since the adventures of Harry Potter came to a close over 4 years ago it was a pretty sure bet that Warner Bros. wasn't just going to let such a lucrative property just linger which left the only question being how would they continue the Harry Potter series without Harry Potter? Go back to the source material of course! Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 12 min
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: November 18, 2016

Biases:  
Loves:  The Harry Potter franchise
Likes: Having adult main characters in a Harry Potter world
Neutral: With no other Fantastic Beasts books the sequels will be original works...yeesh
Hates: Lackluster villain characters
Gotta catch'em all?: Fans of the Pokemon games will feel right at home with how Newt captures and utilizes his fantastic beasts

Despite mumbling his words a bit too much, Newt makes for a fine 

Before Harry Potter became the chosen one and before Lord Voldemort began his crusade against the wizarding world there were other problems to contend with in the form of magical beasts which roamed the lands unchecked and posed a credible threat to wizard and muggle alike due to their mostly unknown attributes and abilities. It is 1926 and most of the world's magical beasts have been wiped out or are on the brink of extinction and only one man, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his suitcase filled with the remnants of the these creatures stands in the way of their complete eradication. After traveling to New York Newt loses his suitcase to a no-maj (non-magical human) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who gets caught in the crossfire when Newt is discovered by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) a magical congress investigator who believes his magical beasts are responsible for a series of attacks happening all over the city that threatens to expose the magical world.

The biggest hurdle that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (henceforth known as FBAWTFT) has to contend with is the legacy of Harry Potter. Although it is thematically and structurally distinct from that series it is and forever will be linked to it simply by association. So it was important that it set itself apart from those other films as quickly as possible and what better way than to uproot the entire franchise from the familiar trappings of the UK and plop it down right in the middle of New York city. On top of the culture swap we also ditch the pre-teen characters and get mostly adults in the lead roles which adds a much needed different perspective of the wizarding world. Lastly is the story itself which as illustrated earlier has absolutely nothing to do with Harry Potter (yet) and that is probably the biggest departure this film makes which can be a make or break thing for those looking forward to any links to the Potter films outside a couple familiar names being thrown around.

Jacob is our gateway into this new world but comes with his own complexities.

Although not all the Harry Potter films were of the same quality the one thing that kept audiences hooked and coming back for more was arguably the characters. Harry, Ron and Hermoine (among many, many others) were so well defined and portrayed that it was impossible to not get invested in their journey. Likewise now with FBAWTFT as each of our four main protagonists is just as (if not more so) charming and relateable as Harry and the gang who came before them. You can even see hints of those iconic characters in each of these new ones but never so much as they come across like just grown up versions of the same characters. Take for instance Newt and Jacob whose relationship isn't that far removed from that of Harry and Ron with both becoming friends over the course of their adventure and ultimately forming a bond that will bind them forever.

The two sisters, Tina and Queenie (Alison Sudol) are probably the biggest departure for our core group of characters as they both share similarities with Hermoine but split between them. Tina is a skilled witch who is all about following protocol until her emotions come into the equation and Queenie is completely driven by her emotions but tired of the usual type of guys who throw themselves at her and finds herself drawn to the more sweet natured Jacob. Most important of all though is the casting here as each actor embodies their characters to near perfection and all have great chemistry with each other (especially Queenie and Jacob who will easily become fan favorites). When you can't imagine anyone else in the role you know that someone did something right and I would easily watch anything with these four in it which bodes well for the future prospects of this series.

Tina and Queenie supply ample amounts of girl power while also remaining vulnerable.

As for the story, there are two very distinct stories happening in FBAWTFT that make up the majority of this first film in a supposedly large number of forthcoming sequels. The first story is the one involving Newt and all of his magical beasts while the second which is relegated to the background for the most part involves the looming threat of an evil wizard named Grindlewald whose motivations and actions remain a mystery through most of the film. While the story with Newt is the more successful of the two in the way it introduces the audience to this new stable of characters everything revolving around Grindlewald falls mostly flat due to a lack of focus and the film's inability to make anything pertaining to him feel all that important.

Everything having to do with Newt, Jacob, Tina, Queenie and hunting down the escaped beasts is just plain fun and easily feature the best moments in the whole film including a rather inspired sequence when they attempt to capture a creature that changes its size dependent on the size of the room it is in. But what doesn't hold up quite as well is the mystery surrounding an unknown force running rampant through New York at the same time as Newt's creatures are set loose. Investigating these events is the extremely obvious villainous figure Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who is having these secret dealings with an orphan boy Credence (Ezra Miller) whose caretaker and witch hunter Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is on a crusade to oust the entire magic community. The problem with these scenes is that things are kept a secret from the audience for far too long compared to how often they are intermixed with Newt's story.

Graves certainly looks the part but he is mostly just a stock villain.

Watching Graves meet up with Credence over and over again with little to no context as to what any of it means until the film's final 20 minutes is extremely trying and more importantly uninteresting. It doesn't help that Graves himself is barely a two dimensional figure whose motivations feel overly forced despite a last second revelation which will have more impact on future sequels than any sort of relevance in the film we are actually watching (which is always a problem when that happens in films setting up other films). The Harry Potter films also suffered from this a bit (especially the first one) and considering this is more or less a world building and character introduction entry into this new franchise these shortcomings are easily over looked as subsequent entries will likely benefit from this particular films failures but is no less frustrating in the moment.

In the end FBAWTFT is a really fun and entertaining experience that is chock full of the same magic that made the Harry Potter franchise such a beloved series but most importantly it doesn't rely on that namesake. Instead it forges its own path and although it is littered with problems, some consistent with Harry's adventures and others that are all new, the positives far outweigh any misgivings one might have with it. Full of charming and memorable characters along with a new perspective of a familiar world, its safe to say that FBAWTFT is on the right path but only time will tell if it is able to keep it up for as long as Harry Potter was.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

As far as prequels go FBAWTFT is one of the better ones. It doesn't feel forced, offers an interesting new perspective on a world we know and love but best of all it can stand on its own without having to rely on its bigger brother to help it along. Filled with wonderful characters and some literal fantastic beasts, this is the best way to keep the Harry Potter legacy going without the chosen one himself.

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