Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) Review

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So I have been ridiculously lazy with this blog over the last month but hopefully I can get myself back on track with the next few posts I’ve got in the pipeline. Since I last wrote I have seen Fantastic Beasts (twice!), Cursed Child, Aladdin the Musical, Moana, and others, and, as you may expect, I have a lot of thought about all of the above. Let’s start with the first one- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Fantastic Beasts is JK Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting, with direction by old favourite, David Yates, and starring Eddie Redmayne as the lovable maji-zoooligist, Newt Scamander. Newt arrives in New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of creatures, while the wizarding world is in turmoil due to the actions of a European dark wizard, Grindlewald, and New York itself is faced with a vocal anti-witchcraft group, the New Salem Philanthropic Society, and a mysterious force ripping through the city. A niffler (adorable fluffy thief) escapes from Newt’s case and causes some havoc in a bank, and then Newt’s case gets switched with No-maj (muggle) Jacob’s, resulting in a large number of magical creatures escaping into the chaos of New York. As you can expect, the American wizarding government, MACUSA, is less than pleased.

Fantastic Beasts is loosely based off of a short book of the same name that appears in the Harry Potter novel series and that Rowling released in 2001 to raise money for children in need. The 2001 book was styled like the text book mentioned in the series and contained only entries about certain creatures (e.g. different types of dragon, nifflers, ect), which left a lot of creative freedom for this film series. We know very little about this time period – only that Grindlewald, whose motivations are briefly explored in the Deathly Hallows novel, is active and will eventually be defeated in a battle with Albus Dumbledore – and I think this works in the film’s favour. It is not treading on canon. It is offering a deeper incite into the magical world without stomping all over the headcanons people may have. Everything is new and exciting again. Overall, my feelings about it are very positive.

I must quickly point out that, from this point on, there are likely to be SPOILERS so if you haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts you may wish to stop reading. I will also include references to my own theories about what may happen in the series using information provided in the Potter novels.

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But before that, let’s talk characters. Fantastic Beasts, as the beginning of a new film franchise, introduces a wealth of new characters. Newt, played by Redmayne, is adorably awkward. He was not my favourite character, most likely because I didn’t feel he had the same character progression as many of the others, but he was enjoyable to watch. He was very different from Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry, much quieter and less inclined to reckless action. I am assuming that his character progression, like Harry’s, will be stretched out across the series (and will hopefully explain some of the interesting references sprinkled throughout the film). Jacob, the No-maj, was probably one of my favourites. He has a nice character arc and, although often used for comic effect, was not used purely as a bounce off point to make Newt look better (as Ron was for Harry in the Potter films). Dan Fogler, who plays Jacob, was just so genuine with it all – you could easily believe that he was this ordinary guy thrown into a magical adventure. Tina (Katherine Waterstone) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) Goldstein were also pretty good, although I longed for more explanation about Queenie’s powers. The stand-out performance was from Colin Farrell though – his Percival Graves was sinister and seductive and the perfect cause-having villain. I am going to rant about him later though, so I’ll keep it short here.

Fantastic Beasts steps away from the British-centric magical world that we know from the Harry Potter series and takes us to 1920’s New York. Post-war, full of jazz and speakeasies, it is also far more restricted than the wizarding world we’ve known before. The wizarding world is forbidden from intermingling with the muggle/no-maj world at all – no marriages, no friendships, no magical creatures allowed in the city, nada. The punishment for such infractions, a death potion that apparently melts you while showing you all your memories, feels more extreme than anything the British side ever showed – only the use of the Unforgivable Curses resulted in anything comparable (and even then it’s a kiss from a Dementor, stealing your soul but not melting you). It’s a more sinister world, full of extremes, and it will take further films to work out if that is a commentary on the political climate of the setting or of America in general.

The creatures in Fantastic Beasts are the most important part. They cause all the events of the film, they are likely to be the focus of all merchandise (maybe I’ll finally be able to get a thestral toy?), and they are what sets this series so far apart from the Potter films. War? We’ve seen it before. Magical animals? Need more! And they are most definitely plentiful and adorable in Fantastic Beasts. I think we all felt like Jacob when Newt showed him the inside of his case – it was a moment that was reminiscent of the magic of our first step into Hogwarts in Philosopher’s Stone. I do think they highlight some of the weaknesses in the CGI though. The Potter series managed to achieve such realism with many of their creatures while Fantastic Beasts… Doesn’t quite manage it in the same way. Some were fine (like Frank the Thunderbird) but others started edging a bit too far towards cartoonish animation. Perhaps they sacrificed realism for characterisation but, as someone who finds too anthropomorphic CGI animals quite creepy, I’m hoping they’ll readjust the balance in subsequent films. It doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the film but just a niggly upset at the quality of their special effects.

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As much as I enjoyed the magic of the film, the acting, and the interest of the setting, I feel that Fantastic Beasts does suffer from a problem a number of Warner Brothers films has recently. Plot. The clear interference with the plot (presumably by the studio). It’s not to the same extent of other recent Warner Brothers films, like Suicide Squad or Batman VS Superman, but I do suspect that the original script probably had a number of redrafts to allow for the number of sequels that the franchise is now going to have. Originally it was going to be one, then later three, and now they are saying it will be five films long. The division between what I think was in the original film and what I suspect was added in to set up for the sequels is, to me, glaringly obvious. The adventure with Newt and his friends was the perfect introduction to the world and I can see how it should have played out. Then comes the Grindlewald stuff. Great for giving us a time reference but it feels so different tonally to everything else that it rather detracts from the core film. It feels shoved in, a plotline added to add some continuity to the wider series. Because following the same character is not enough if the overall villain does not appear in every film.

The Grindlewald plotline in Fantastic Beasts, particularly the link to Obscurials, is interesting even if I do feel that it was added later to allow for the five film franchise. It raises questions about certain characters in the Harry Potter series and is therefore very intriguing and suggests that it may be something we will encounter again. I’m not sure if I like how they did the final sequence with the Obscurus rampaging through New York though. Something about the CGI and staging felt very reminiscent of Ghostbusters which I’m sure was not their intention. Again, that entire storyline felt like an odd choice for the tone of the film, but it offers some interesting theories for the wider Potter universe.

My biggest bugbear with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one that has been widely debated across the internet. Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp does not belong in the Potter universe. Unlike many others, my issue has little to do with Johnny Depp’s personal life. I do not condone violence but am not naive enough to think that all the actors who have ever been involved in the Potter franchise are squeaky clean. My issue is that he is Johnny Depp. And he is always Johnny Depp. He is never anything less. This makes him perfect for certain roles but it also makes him a dominant force in any film he appears in. Every film that he has been in in the past decade or so has been a Johnny Depp carrier. I don’t want that for Fantastic Beasts. The Potter films had many great names associated with it but none outshone the others – I want Fantastic Beasts to do the same. I’m not sure they’ll manage it with Depp playing the villain. The moment he appeared, I was unhappy. It didn’t help that they made some… interesting choices with the look they went for. Man, has Grindlewald’s good looks gone downhill. It was also a disappointment to have Depp, playing this creepy and rather typically Depp-y Grindlewald, after having the beautiful mastery that was Colin Farrell as the villain for the first couple of hours of the film. It was such a disappointment in a film that I genuinely enjoyed and creates great concern for the subsequent films.

Overall, I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts. I do feel that they made some choices that were glaringly related to the expansion of the franchise and other choices that I am just utterly against but, I will concede, that I will have to watch the rest of the series before making such judgements. Will I watch more? Eagerly!

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