“Fantastic Beasts” Review: A Magical Jumanji, Underlined by Darkness

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Let’s get serious, movies nowadays are about the long haul.

It’s not 1996 anymore, where a trilogy of films wrapped neatly in a bow would dazzle simply with their in-world depth or ability to carry a story over a series of films; as hard as it is to admit, that just doesn’t get the dough rolling in or the blood pumping like it used to.

No, the real goal is expansion – taking threads and one-offs and spinning them into an expanded universe of movies, trilogies revolving around other trilogies, impacting for explosive team-ups and earth-shattering events. As your grandparents can tell you, Universal did it way back in the 30’s and 40’s, combining monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein in period appropriate duels for the intrigue of the masses. Toho has been doing it forever, letting Godzilla duke it out with space monsters, robotic clones and numerous creatures for generation after generation after generation. As of 2016, Marvel has perfected the contemporary formula, unintentionally teaching every other franchise the potential billions to be made with a cinematic universe. DC took the manual first and yet still fails to extinguish the divisive reactions to their films, while franchises like The Fast & The Furious and Star Wars are still in the infancy of realizing just how widespread they could go in their respective universes.

Without missing a note, the Harry Potter franchise has picked up the book, studied hard and waved their wand to create the beginning of something new – in this case a series of films based on a field guide about the various magical creatures that inhabit the wizarding world. J.K Rowling not only blessed the project, but penned the script, dipping her toes for the time into the murky waters of Hollywood and raising more than a few questions. Can Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them extend beyond its humble beginnings as a one-off addition to the Harry Potter series, as well as charge the path for a new observation at the magical realm, beginning what is now one of five announced movies? Will the same whimsical energy that highlighted the first set of Harry Potter films be shared in this new franchise or will director and series veteran David Yates keep the gloom that exhausted the last parts of his movies in the series? It seems that to answer these questions, one must to grab a wand, put on their coats and slip back into the storied and imaginative world that was introduced to us all those years ago.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them drops viewers not in the familiar wizarding world of the British, but in brand new territory – taking place in 1926, 70 years before the birth of Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts showcases the wizarding side of America, specifically New York City. Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, arrives in the city, carrying a magical suitcase housing dozens of exotic creatures. In an odd mix-up, the suitcase is displaced and opened, causing a “No-Maj” (commonly referred to as Muggles in the Harry Potter series) named Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, to join Newt in the capture of all these fantastic beasts. Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol play sister witches Tina and Queenie Goldstein, both of whom get wrapped up in Newt’s misadventures, just as Collin Farrell’s Percival Graves traces the fringes of the wizarding attack that threatens to expose everyone to the world of magic. Written by world renowned author J.K Rowling, this film is the fifth to be directed by Potter universe veteran David Yates.

Fantastic Beasts proudly reintroduces audiences to that familiar brand of tantalizing magic that we’ve been cold to for the past few years. 1926 New York City comes to life with new enchanted dressings, potent sounds and variations on some themes we’ve seen before, though they’re nonetheless exciting. Packed with a soaring score and paced by frames dripping with puzzling new spells and organizations, Beasts easily brews a potion of comfortably new potential. Within that potential is a highlight of fun new characters, starting with the film’s star New Scamander. Eddie Redmayne plays the character in a very nuanced way – around people Newt is disconnected and aloft but when around these fantastical creatures he’s changed, embodying a more extroverted personality and proud tone. Bouncing off Newt’s oddness is another acting highlight of the film in the form of Dan Fogler’s character Jacob, the portly Muggle No-Maj caught in the crossfire. What is essentially the audience’s lens into the rules and regulations of this American magic infrastructure proves to be the film’s funniest focal point. Jacob’s wide range of expressions and reactions to the bewildering happenings going on around keep the film light in tone and it’s a glad addition to have. The rest of the cast is just as equally engaging as these two, providing thematic angles that haven’t been previously explored in this universe. As Shrek would say, these people are like onions – they have layers. And although these layers weren’t peeled away completely (Sequel! Sequel! Sequel!), what we’re given fits the narrative well enough to make us want to revisit these plot threads in the future.

…with a little work even the smallest footnote in the world of Harry Potter can be entertaining.

The selling point of the book and this movie has always been J.K Rowling’s creatures, which in this case is expanded into the idea of an adventure spawned by having to capture them. Dangerous, mystical and in certain moments cute, the creatures and the efforts to catch them amalgamate the film into a magical version of Jumanji, in a good way of course. Eddie Redmayne trouncing across the screen with Dan Fogler in tow make for the best parts of the movie, proving that with a little work even the smallest footnote in the world of Harry Potter can be entertaining.

David Yates must have a problem with light, colour and whimsy, because the man can’t wait to flush out every ounce of them the first chance he gets. Yates takes the comparatively broad and uptick tone of Newt capturing beasts and pairs it with the extremely dour stance of Ezra Miller’s character Credence Barebone, a major element in the miserable B-plot that Collin Farrell’s character Percival Graves travels. A sharp divide cuts the film, jarringly cutting instantly from the movies funniest scenes to some of the most brutal and wince inducing imagery Yates has ever explored. Moments like these suck the bigheartedness that’s been built up, constantly causing the movie to roll over itself with a side story that severely lacks meat on its bones. Hell, that can be said for our villains as well as the film’s finale, skeletal archetypes that we as an audience are supposed to fear, but don’t because they aren’t that threatening in the first place and they the lack depth needed to understand their destructive capabilities and how that could affect the characters we’ve come to like. Colin Farrell is dramatically trapped, aimlessly walking across the screen as he leads the film to a climatic finish that’s one part CGI overload and two parts “we’ve seen this before”. The film ends with a nutty Scooby Doo inspired unmasking that honestly almost derail entire sections of the movie and comes to raise more questions than it answers.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, in its entirety, just alright. It reminds fans of the old while seamlessly weaving in new ideals and constructs, as well as adding new characters and threats that we can come to love over the new few films. Yet it’s those same threats and characters that could have used a second coat of paint, leaving the film with less stakes and connection.

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