FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Fantasy Action Violence

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: J.K. Rowling

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman & Jon Voight

Five years after the eighth HARRY POTTER film concluded the beloved fantasy franchise, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world has returned in FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. This is the first in a five-part series that’s been penned for the screen by none other than Rowling herself and that will likely bring excitement to anyone who grew up with HARRY POTTER. Though this first film in the spin-off series suffers from a few narrative problems, this big-budget fantasy is sure to be please hardcore POTTER heads and those who simply want another cinematic dose of wizarding entertainment!

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The year is 1926 and the place is New York. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is an awkward young wizard with a briefcase full of magical creatures. While other wizards and witches seem content with exterminating fantastical beasts, Newt wishes to save the dwindling species and document their existence in a book (try to guess what it’s titled). However, through an accidental twist of fate, some of Newt’s creatures escape and begin wreaking havoc across New York. With the help of Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), non-maj Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and psychic Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt rushes to recapture his escaped creatures before they or potential wizards/humans are harmed. Meanwhile, dangerous dark magic is also loose on the streets of New York and that sort of off-and-on connects to the main plot.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM doesn’t simply repeat the magical mystery/chosen one formulas that were used in the HARRY POTTER franchise, and instead offers fans and newcomers something fresh in Rowling’s wizarding world. The change of setting to roaring 20’s New York adds a lot of atmosphere and shows us how the magic community functions in America. Small creative background details offer chuckle-worthy visual gags, but the intricately fleshed-out and effects-heavy world simply dazzles before the viewer’s eyes. Though it’s loaded with tons of CGI (like all of the HARRY POTTER films), every frame of the movie looks convincing. FANTASTIC BEASTS more than delivers in sheer spectacle.

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The titular beasts themselves are indeed fantastic. These creatures range from whimsical and cute to potentially threatening and dangerous. Newt Scamander’s quest to document their existence and ensure their survival is likely to appeal to animal lovers everywhere, whilst also feeding into the HARRY POTTER meets JUMANJI storyline. Eddie Redmayne has had hits (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, THE DANISH GIRL) and misses (JUPITER ASCENDING) in his filmography, but serves as a rock solid lead here. Redmayne’s Newt is far from courageous “chosen one” Harry Potter…and starts off instead as quirky and awkward. Harry was a Gryffindor and Newt is a Hufflepuff. It shows, but offers a new kind of magical hero: an ordinary guy who wants to save magical creatures from mankind and wizardkind alike.

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Katherine Waterston makes a serviceable sidekick and heroine to go with the story’s eccentric protagonist, though a love-interest angle between them comes off as forced and unbelievable. Far more enjoyable to watch is Dan Fogler’s stint as a perplexed non-maj (an American Muggle) trying to avoid getting his memory wiped and helping Newt save the day. Alison Sudol makes the most of her scenes and has a fantastic subplot with Fogler. Ron Perlman also makes a brief vocal appearance as a sadly underused goblin gangster.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS’s major problem is a subplot that seems out-of-place and unfocused from the main story, even though it does finally form a connection during the final third. The villains and potential antagonists feel like afterthoughts. I’d argue that this subplot was included purely for the purposes of setting up future installments in a very noticeable, borderline distracting fashion. Colin Farrell does what he can to salvage the blatant sequel set-up as a hard-to-read Auror. Ezra Miller slumps his shoulders and cries, contributing next-to-nothing to the main storyline and giving a would-be emotional story arc that feels half-assed. Jon Voight shows up as a news reporter and doesn’t do much. Meanwhile, Samantha Morton seems primed to be a hateful antagonist…and then sort of fades away from the proceedings. This subplot was messy and though it does distract from FANTASTIC BEASTS’s main story, it doesn’t damage the overall movie too badly.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is better than three of the HARRY POTTER films (GOBLET OF FIRE, HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, and DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1) and reaches the level of SORCERER’S STONE on Rowling’s Wizarding World totem pole. Though BEASTS suffers from noticeable narrative stumbles and a sloppy subplot, it more than delivers in being spectacularly entertaining, giving us a new batch of interesting characters, and making the viewer excited for future installments to come. FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM has satisfied a cinematic craving that I didn’t realize I had until this film concluded. Bring on more magical adventures!

Grade: B+

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