Saturday, November 26, 2016

New Release! Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Spoiler-Free section first)

Director: David Yates

Spoiler-free Section

An entertaining popcorn fantasy movie that brings us back into J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter-verse.

The story takes place 70 years before the events in the Harry Potter books, in the United States of the mid-1920s, where a peculiar Englishman named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redgrave) disembarks at Ellis Island with a strange briefcase. Scamander is a wizard who looks after exotic magical creatures which are under threat of death or even extinction. He keeps the beasts he finds in his traveling case, which thanks to magic, opens into a massive set of rooms and open spaces which can easily contain the many critters under his charge. Scamander has come to the U.S. to return one of the creatures to its native habitat. However, a few of the creatures in his case manage to escape and begin to run amok in New York City. While all of this happens, the wizarding community in the United States is in crisis, as a bizarre and mysterious destructive force has been killing and causing damage around the city. The devastation threatens to reveal the U.S. wizarding community to non-wizards, leading to a likely war which most wizards understand would have disastrous consequences for all involved. Scamander becomes wrapped up in this affair while he tries to track down and recapture his beasts.

The movie is plenty of fun, if not quite as tight or consistently creative as the best Harry Potter movies or other fantasy adventure films aimed at wide audiences. The tale of Newt Scamander is a pretty thinly veiled advocacy of "green" sensibilities, with Scamander playing the part of the concerned zookeeper who is the only one who seems to care for creatures misunderstood and feared. This certainly isn't a bad thing, but it's not exactly the most original concept. It does help that the creatures that he's chasing are amusing to watch and consider. The concurrent tale of turmoil in the U.S. wizarding community uses a darker element which Rowling didn't use in the Harry Potter books, but also isn't the most novel idea, either. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I'll write no more than to say that I quite literally saw exactly the same story idea used in an episode of the CW show Supernatural in an episode earlier this season. Due to this, I was able to anticipate the "twists" in the story fairly easily. This doesn't torpedo the story, but it did take away a bit of its punch for me.

Queenie and Kowalski, probably my favorite part of the film.
The relationship between the two is the most deftly handled
and the most touching.
In such fantasy tales, characters can make or break the story, and Fantastic Beasts does a solid job with its people. Scamander is, while twitchy and uncomfortable, likeable and quirky enough to carry much of the film. The U.S. witch Tina, played by Katherine Waterston, is also solid enough, although her character is never fully fleshed out enough to be much more than a capable and noble figure. And the attraction which develops between her and Newt never feels totally organic. In contrast, the relationship between Tina's witch sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the "no-mag" aspiring baker Kowalski is as endearing a romance as I've seen in such a family picture. Thanks to brilliant acting by both Sudol and Dan Fogler as the earnest and amicable everyman Kowalski, I found myself truly hoping that they could find some sort of happiness together. There is even a very affecting moment of loss pertaining to their relationship that I surprisingly found quite touching. Most other characters are fairly black-and-white, which suffices well enough.

The visuals are what you would hope from a big-budget Hollywood flick. They're captivating enough, and I imagine would be enhanced by a viewing in 3D (I watched it on in standard format). I am generally a fan of using people, makeup, and costumes over CGI for effects, and Fantastic Beasts does lean a bit heavily on the latter more or less out of necessity. Fortunately, it doesn't rob the film of too much texture.

So this was an enjoyable return to J.K. Rowling's most wildly successful world. I just read that this is meant to be the first of a five-film series. Fortunately, it mostly feels like a self-contained movie, rather than one meant to be a setup for several future films. It's a great way to test the waters and see if you enjoy this foray into the past behind one of the most titanically popular fantasy worlds created in modern times.

Spoiler Section - You've Been Warned

For a guy so concerned with the well-being of his creatures, Scamander sure doesn't put much stock into getting the clasps on his briefcase fixed. I know, I know. It's sort of a necessary plot device, but it felt like a type of carelessness that runs counter to everything else we learn about his character.

Tina helps Newt out of one of several jams in which he finds
himself. It's just a shame that the film didn't dig a bit deeper
into Tina's skill as a field investigator for her ministry.
There are a few questionable plot points that get completely railroaded, presumably for the sake of pace, many of them regarding Tina's place at the Ministry of Wizarding in New York City. We learn that she was demoted from her position as an investigator - or "auror" in Potter parlance - because she reached out to a rather unfriendly no-mag, but that's about it. But I feel as if we never get to see her truly flex her skills as an auror. She does save Newt's bacon more than once, but the implication is often that she is far more capable than the film ever fully depicts. This seemed like a missed opportunity. Not to mention just how easily and repeatedly the other investigators dismiss her out of hand, despite Tina's clearly being a level-headed and dedicated member of their organization.

In that vein, things do feel a bit rushed at several points of the movie. Perhaps this is based on the filmmakers' assumption that most viewers are already familiar with the basics of the Potter universe and don't need a refresher. This may be true, but Fantastic Beasts throws a fairly high number of characters, creatures, and concepts at viewers in relatively short order. Several of them seem quite interesting, but they are never given more than a few moments of screen time, and so they are often little more than window dressing  - a pack of colorfully-dressed folks waving wands around and either destroying or fixing things.

There are also a few clumsy moment in the plot. A little over halfway through the movie, Tina finds a picture of a woman who seems to have significance to Newt. Tina raises the point, and Newt's response hints as some unresolved relationship, but the entire story remains extremely vague about it. And at the end of the movie, Newt acts as if he's had some sort of soft breakthrough and gotten past her. It's a tad awkward and watered down, making the entire sub-point seem of little to no value. There are a few other points a bit like this, where an element which has potential to add depth to the characters or plot goes unexplored. None of them is tragic, but they do weaken the movie just a bit.

My gripes basically arise from several sloppy or overlooked details that keep the movie from being as tight as it could be. Again, I did enjoy the movie, and I'll certainly watch it again at some point in the future.