Thursday, November 24, 2016

'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' review

Let's face it- no franchise is ever going to come close to Harry Potter. What J.K. Rowling accomplished with her epic series of novels was dazzling and what the creative team behind the movie saga managed to pull off was possibly even more impressive. Potter was the franchise of a generation, a cultural phenomenon like nothing else in cinematic history. It was just a terrific story, which managed to touch the hearts of people all around the world. Producer David Heyman and filmmakers Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates kept things rolling for over a decade, delivering consistently terrific films at an almost unprecedented rate. Not to mention the impeccable cast, led by a trio of young actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) who fit their roles to perfection and a team of veteran British stars who stood out in supporting roles. Rowling's Potterverse is a world of limitless possibilities, but nothing will ever be quite as magical as the story of the Boy Who Lived.

But that isn't stopping Warner Bros. from trying to recapture the magic. After the series wrapped up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2 in 2011, many assumed it was the end of the Potter story. And while those characters continued their adventures in this summer's best-selling play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which we all know will inevitably be adapted into a film), Rowling and Heyman seemed set on not pushing for a useless continuation of that story. Instead, they did what all other Hollywood studios do- spin-offs and prequels! As soon as Warner announced the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy, there was a collective groan around the world. Fans and critics lamented the series as a weak cash grab, another misstep like The Hobbit that would merely serve as a way for one of Hollywood's top studios to maintain their biggest brand. When Rowling and Warner later announced that the trilogy would be expanded to five movies, there was an even bigger eye roll from franchise-weary moviegoers across the globe. Couldn't we just get through one movie before announcing four more?

The idea of returning to the Potterverse was always infinitely appealing to me. After all, I was one of those kids who fell under the Potter spell. I devoured the books, watched all the movies, and even shed a tear when the series was over in 2011. I even loved The Cursed Child, the somewhat controversial play that many fans seemed to reject as fan fiction. So basically, I'm a nerd for all things Harry Potter. I love the characters and I love the world that Rowling has created. Even with a heavy dose of Hollywood franchise skepticism, I maintained a healthy level of excitement for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I remember seeing the trailer in theaters in front of The Jungle Book back in April, and I nearly jumped out of my seat with giddiness as the iconic notes of the Potter theme blasted through the IMAX theater. I was ready for this movie, and even if it could never reach the levels of Harry Potter, I was hoping for another spectacularly fun adventure in this brilliant universe.

As a member of the Potter fandom, it gives me no pleasure to report that Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a disappointment. No, it isn't a bad movie, but it's a profoundly messy one, a jumbled mix of tones and ideas that never forms into a cohesive whole. There's plenty to love about Rowling's expansion of the Potter story, which takes place in New York in the 1920s during the height of the jazz age. But there's no denying that this is an experience that is less joyous and magical than it is tiresome, a film that is 20 minutes too long and hindered by a weak story. The characters, led primarily by Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston's Tina Goldstein, are likable enough, and the action scenes deliver as expected, which makes it all the more unfortunate that Fantastic Beasts just barely misses the mark. There's still some fun to be had with this film, and I haven't given up on the potential for an excellent franchise, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a rocky start to the new age of Harry Potter.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set several decades before the events of Harry Potter, shifting the action to 1920s New York. The opening scene reveals that there is trouble brewing in the magic world, as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (it was recently announced that Johnny Depp will be taking on the role, which will be expanded in the sequel) is wreaking havoc across the globe. Meanwhile, there's a new sense of fear surrounding wizards and witches in the United States, as the Second Salem movement, led by the terrifying Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), pushes to expose and exterminate those with magical powers from the country. After that brief prologue, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the city of New York with a case full of fantastic creatures, hoping to return one to its rightful place. However, things quickly go south, as a few of the beasts escape from the case. After a wacky switch with No-Maj (the American term for Muggle) baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Newt realizes that three beasts have escaped to spread mischief across the city of New York.

To find those creatures, Newt teams up with Jacob, exiled Ministry of Magic official Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), on an epic quest throughout one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Simultaneously, there's a much darker plot going on, involving Ministry leader Graves (Colin Farrell) and Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the son of anti-witch activist Mary Lou. Graves seeks a dark power that has been repressed inside the Barebones family for generations, a power has been creating destruction around New York City. Graves and Credence both wish to control that power, which could both serve their own interests very well. As Newt's beasts continue to run free around New York, No-Maj fear begins to grow, and the paths of Graves, Credence, and Newt intersect in a way that could change the wizarding world forever.

It will always be fun to spend time in J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World. It's a universe of magic and monsters and refined style and everything is so perfectly crafted that you can't help but fall in love with the wonder of it all. My so-so reaction to Fantastic Beasts is not indicative of how I feel about the future of this series or the future of other Harry Potter spin-offs and sequels. Essentially, I'm not writing off the idea of other stand-alone films in the Potterverse just because of one slight misfire (emphasis on the "slight"). I like the characters and the direction of this new series, and I think it will be interesting to see where Newt, Tina, Grindelwald, and Young Dumbeldore (who will be appearing in the sequel) go from here. The future of Harry Potter on the big screen is still as limitless as it was before Fantastic Beasts hit theaters. There are so many directions to go and there's still so much fun to be had.

But this movie is a mess. My love for Rowling, Yates, and Potter can't mask the fact that Fantastic Beasts is a film with a flimsy foundation, compounded by a weak story, an array of competing tones, and some seriously poor pacing. This film wants to have its cake and eat it too, and it seems like the main idea in the early phase of pre-production was "What if we combined Sorcerer's Stone with Deathly Hallows? What would that look like?" At times, Fantastic Beasts is a rambling, exceedingly goofy fantasy film about a nerdy magizoologist and his kooky creatures, and at other times, it's a dark, violent film with intense socio-political themes. If those two elements don't sound compatible, that's because they aren't. Rowling and Yates never figure out exactly what movie they're trying to make, so you just end up with a hodgepodge of scenes. One minute, Newt is dancing around Central Park trying to stop one of his creatures from having sex with a hippo, and then before you know it, Credence is getting brutally beaten by his fanatical mother. In the months leading up to this film, Rowling was sure to emphasize how much darker Fantastic Beasts was than previous Potter films. She failed to mention that it was also sillier, a tone that nearly sinks the movie at various points.

The tonal change might be more forgivable if the story wasn't so weak. Not only is Fantastic Beasts a tale of two radically different tones- it's a movie dealing with two completely separate stories. One story follows Newt's quest to find his missing beasts, and the other involves Graves, the New Salemers, and Credence. The way that these two stories connect is forced at best, and the constant back and forth sucks the momentum out of the film. Newt's adventure is fun at first, but it never goes anywhere, so I turned most of my attention to the politics of magical New York and the new wizard war. Unfortunately, for every potentially interesting development in the fight between the Magic Congress of the USA and Grindelwald, there's another tedious scene depicting Newt trying to catch some wacky creature. Fantastic Beasts moves forward in jolts, and the pacing just sinks the film after a while. By the time the city-smashing conclusion rolls around, the journey is less magical and more exhausting.

Even though this is a major missed opportunity, Fantastic Beasts does lay some good groundwork for the future of the new Potter franchise. Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander is a likably awkward lead, and as a major part of the Potter lore, it'll be interesting to see how Scamander factors into the war between Grindelwald and Dumbeldore. Katherine Waterston's Tina is a fun character as well, and of course, it'll be enjoyable to see fan favorite Jacob Kowalski continue with his adventures in the wizarding world. The 1920s New York setting is fully realized, and while some fans were up-in-arms about decisions made by Rowling, the cultural differences between the British and American wizarding worlds are quite fascinating. There is no clear direction for where the franchise will go from here- we know who the players are, but not the future of the story. And yet, wherever Yates and Rowling decide to take this franchise (which will supposedly span 19 years), the foundation is in place. Now they just have to execute.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is certainly a letdown, but I'm not discouraged quite yet. The creative team behind this film didn't miss by much, and if they can narrow the focus for the upcoming sequels, I have no doubt that the franchise will get back on track. But as much as I love the Harry Potter series, I can't let my fandom keep me from seeing how messy this movie is. Fans will probably have a decent enough time, but there's a sinking feeling that comes with watching Fantastic Beasts. Everything starts out great- I dare any fan to not get a little emotional when that iconic theme music blasts over the Warner Bros. logo. But as the story continues on and it becomes abundantly clear that the movie isn't going anywhere, there's a sense of dread that comes creeping in. And as the end credits pop up on the screen, it's hard to shake the feeling of disappointment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.2/10)

Image Credits: IMDB, Coming Soon, Joblo

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