Monday, November 28, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Some Spoilers.

In this Harry Potter spin-off, it's still the wizarding world, but there's a distinct lack of grade school kids. Instead we have Newt Scamander () an animal-loving wizard and writer visiting the good old US of A in all its 1920-something splendor. When his packed belongings make a run for it, he teams up with a spunky wizard investigator Tina Goldstein (), her mind-reading sister Queenie () and a Muggle-- er, excuse me, Nomaj -- Jacob Kowalski () a regular chap who chose a bad time to apply for a loan for a dream bakery.

No offense Harry, but I liked this guy more than I ever liked you after, like, five minutes.

As I've said, I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan. From my perspective the stories have their fair share of flaws, but are enjoyable, mostly on the merit of the expansive and creative world they inhabit. And it was exactly that that piqued my interest with this new series set in the same world. It's an opportunity to explore more of the world outside of Hogwarts -- in a vintage era no less -- featuring fantastic creatures. I figured I'd watch it someday like I did Potter, but wound up seeing in theaters after all, and, here I am.

The movie is almost exactly what I expected out of it, and while that means there were plenty of flaws and moments that were significantly less than excellent, it also means that what I hoped to get out of it was delivered on. Though the plot doesn't move out of NYC, The time-change and the jump across the pond was plenty of expansion. I thought that the late twenties was an excellent era to mix with the magic and fantasy too. And the introduction to some of the magical beasts was a neat aspect. I hope it was only an introduction though, and that they'll expand significantly as the story moves along.

The CGI effects were pretty and had some neat ideas to portray, but was spotty in the execution.

There's also a plot line that is disconnected from creatures though, in which a villain feigning to be good () enlists a troubled and abused teen () to exploit his adoptive mother's () work as an anti-witch zealot to find a magic child who possesses a huge and dangerous power. The slight connection with that and Newt's escapades to recollect his collection of creatures is that he had once found child like that before. It is a little jarring to jump between this serious and maturely-themed plot, and the one that mostly involves the constant chasing of a slippery hedgehog that looks like a platypus and has an affinity for shiny things. There was too much of that silliness, and it works even less in movies where the characters adults than it does when with little kids. I much preferred the times when the tone landed at a middle ground between the two.

The element that both gave me the most satisfaction and left me wanting to see more was the characters. If there's going to be four more movies of this, I would actually happily sit through them all, as long as the characters stay this good. Newt was the standout. Eddie Redmayne is quite the talented character actor, and Mr. Scamander is a very specifically characterized character. Socially awkward and awkwardly charming, he's completely unaffected and uncaring at how he's viewed. He's also very still and doesn't express much, but I found him easy to read and to understand; perhaps because there's no excess to him, so every movement's expression is clear.

Similarities between him and the 11th Doctor are apparent, but I also saw a lot of Endeavour Morse in him, which won me over fast.

All four of the film's circle group of heroes were excellently characterized. They give the sense of their being stereotypes the impression they leave is so strong, but they're not. And they all work together nicely with potential and chemistry. The one problem I had concerning then is unfortunately pretty significant -- that the romance is forced. Extremely, in the case of Newt and Tina. There was no call for that last scene with them. They didn't know each other long enough for that level of drama. And if they're going to have four more films together it's not like they're pressed for time. Just watch them have to backtrack later because the romance is moving too fast.

With Queenie and Mr. Kowalski it was much less forced, but still didn't have any significant substance behind it. But it was cute, so -- more forgivable. The plotting in general was more just simply creative than smart and thoughtful. Motivations in general are ambiguous. And I found myself predicting a lot -- even two of the film's biggest twists. In one case the movie was projecting against it too much, and in the other case, not enough.

Here's to no changes where it was good, and lots of improving where it wasn't!

The whys and the hows of the plot could use some serious improvement, and I honestly expect it will improve with more films. This one, as the first in a new series spent its efforts in establishing the nature of the world around it, and the characters it wants us to care for. It is far from perfect, and far from converting me into a Potterhead, but I must say, after so many franchises that have struggled and then faded away unresolved, it's refreshing to have one come that we can count on. Maybe we can't count on it being exceptional or groundbreaking, but we can count on it being fun and engaging and seeing through to a set conclusion. That, plus scifi/fantasy imagination, a retro setting and some worthy heroes, and it's hard to go too far wrong.


  1. Nice review! I love the cast and it was a great visit outside of the wizarding world known as Harry Potter. The plot could've use more work. I felt like a lot of details were missing, and hoping the sequels will fill more in of the lingering question marks.

    1. Thank you! I agree completely! The cast of characters and the world was the highlight. And I really hope they work on the plot and fill in those gaps in the future. But, unexpectedly, I'm on board for sequels!