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Is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Truly Fantastic?


          In 2001, J.K. Rowling published a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for Comic Relief. A companion to her Harry Potter series, the short guide is based on one of the textbooks studied by the students at Hogwarts. It’s referenced only a small handful of times in the books and barely at all in the movies; but Warner Brothers, desperate to continue to milk a successful franchise after the final Harry Potter movie, chose to turn that book into a film.
          So it’s clear Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was made for no other reason than to make money. However, cash grabs can sometimes turn into good movies, and with a lot of creative avenues to explore in the world of Harry Potter, there’s plenty of opportunities.
          Set in the late 1920’s, Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist arrives in New York for research on a field guide he’s writing about magical creatures. But the case containing these creatures winds up in the hands of a muggle (or “No-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and expectedly a number of them get loose causing havoc in New York. And so Newt must round up his lost creatures before they do too much damage or are killed by wizards who don’t understand them, aided by Jacob as a witness and a magical government inspector.
          Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates who directed the last four Potter films. The movie contains a number of references and easter eggs to aspects of the Harry Potter universe, but relies maybe a bit too much on the audience knowing Harry Potter. At least in the mechanics of the world. That being said, the world presented in this film is fittingly, fantastic. One of my criticisms of the Harry Potter series is that for such an intriguing world that was created, J.K. Rowling explored relatively little of it. But this film which she wrote, is full of world expansion. We see the wizarding community in America, how it functions in contrast to Britain, and how they interact with the muggle society. There’s creativity to the ideas and even some of the designs like at the American Ministry. And the 1920s setting gives the film a nice visual identity, proving a very welcome contrast to the modern era of the Potter films.
          Eddie Redmayne is really good most of the time. There are moments where he dips into that socially awkward genius cliché, but I think his genuine love for his work is carried through. You want to know more about this guy and his adventures. Colin Farrell is pretty good as a shady Ministry executive pursuing him. Katherine Waterston plays Tina, a shunned Ministry employee who’s desperate for respect which Waterston plays quite well. Her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a very typical 1920’s flapper girl with the ability to read minds. Despite this, she doesn’t come off as annoying as she could have. Perhaps the show-stealer though is Dan Fogler as Jacob, who conveys terrifically that wide-eyed wonder of a man being exposed to magic for the first time. His immediate love of this world and good-natured attitude makes him quite likeable. And Newt and Jake have terrific chemistry; every moment they’re on-screen it’s a good time. The one cast member who’s not so good is Ezra Miller who seems to be playing the teenage version of Lurch from The Addams Family.
          He’s connected with a whole subplot that ties into heavy-handed themes of abuse and repression. If they were explored more subtly with less distraction I wouldn’t mind, and I understand what Rowling’s trying to say, but the integration is clumsy and wastes Samantha Morton on a one dimensional character. Also the humour doesn’t always work and there’s a disappointing climax that in addition to only being there to set up a sequel, ever so slightly shrinks the world again.
          Though the creatures are creative enough in design, the CGI in this film is for the most part pretty bad. You can practically see the air that Redmayne’s petting half the time. The Harry Potter films were a mixed bag when it came to the creature effects: the Basilisk was incredible, the house elves were atrocious (a number of them appear in this movie and still look awful). But when magical creatures are key components of the story, there should be more effort to make them look at least somewhat tangible.
          As far as movies based on fictional textbooks go, this one’s okay. Despite a bunch of problems, it’s still cool to see a story set in this wizarding world that you couldn’t read beforehand. You care about the characters, one of the romances is surprisingly endearing, and the world expansion is superb. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is nowhere near as good as Prisoner of Azkaban for example, but it is better than half the Potter films. And criticisms aside, I do want to see more.

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