Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review - Magic and mayhem ensues as a new series tries to claw its way to life
Just like the real world, magic must also mature over time. Childhood gives way to adulthood. Believing gives way to bureaucracy. School romances and bullying give way to lost-love, fear and hatred. Yet, like Dumbledore famously said – happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light. For such reasons alone, the wizarding world’s latest instalment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), is worth the watch, having grown along with its legion of fans to remind us that even in our changing and uncertain times, there is always hope. Unlike the first film in the Harry Potter universe though, which eased us into the magical and mythical universe, Fantastic Beasts’ throws us into the proverbial deep end. And whether it’s the darkness, pain, whimsy or fantasy the film jolts between, we just can’t help but feel it hasn’t quite embraced the true meaning of being an adult yet.
Set in the 1920’s, seventy years before Harry’s story begins, Fantastic Beasts reveals a new protagonist in the titular book’s author and acclaimed magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Trading the familiar London setting for prohibition-era New York, not a day after Newt passes through Ellis Island’s immigration he is already wreaking havoc, having sought to bring the majestic Thunderbird back into the wide and welcoming plains of Arizona, but instead unleashed his creatures on the already politically turbulent city. In steps Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), former Auror and Statue of Secrecy enforcer who tries to regain her position by turning Newt into the authorities. After a mix-up of suitcases lands no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) with Newt’s animals however, the three must work together, along with Goldstein’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), to track down the beasts and work out what bigger, badder force is at play in the city. If that isn’t enough, there’s also a plot point about a fanatical anti-witch group called the Second Salemer’s tossed in for good measure too, as well as Gellert Grindelwald’s mysterious disappearance and a family of non-magical politicians whose presence there is just plain and simply dumbfounding.
The special effects are as dazzling and dynamic as they were five years ago, but even they struggle to pull the film into anything other than ordinary. One standout sequence though would have to be the inventive journey into Newt’s suitcase, where we marvel at miniaturised makeshift habitats designed for an array of critters big and small. It is a testament to screenwriter J.K. Rowling and director David Yates that this feels both fresh and fun. As for the beasts themselves, they burst to life with colour, beauty and ferocity, from the bird and snake hybrid Occamy to the rhinoceros-esque Erumpet. Australians in particular may find a close connection with the Niffler, a pilfering echidna cross platypus that causes considerable grief for Newt. Similarly, a shout-out must also be given to the glorious and majestic Thunderbird Frank, who possesses just as much heart and soul as our favourite hippogriff Buckbeak. But it is the tiniest among them that bears the biggest weight, with the sassy stick-insect Bowtruckle saving the day on more than a few occasions.
A cluttered film from the outset, Fantastic Beasts’ biggest struggle is in how it pays too much attention to future instalments, forgetting to make its current one shine. Unlike a gambler sitting at the tables, Rowling and Yates are fearful to go all in, frightened they will spoil films two, three, four and five. Why we will need that many sequels is never really explained, but with so many lines cast out and not enough answers delivered, you can bet fans are already salivating for new source material. And with the legacy of Severus Snape’s big reveal, most have faith something equally uplifting will come to fruition here. On a more positive note, Yates’ direction is outstanding in its consistency, revelling in the fights and battles and good versus evil nature of the sorcery setting. Challenging situations fall at the wayside under his control, as he weaves his own kind of movie magic. It’s just a pity he, the studio, Rowling and pretty much anyone involved in the film behind-the-scenes, can’t decide how to enchant both children and adults alike.
Fogler and Sudol are clear standouts when it comes to the acting, boasting a relaxed allure and comfortable chemistry. Redmayne, in contrast, brings an affable, mannered and boyish charm, that jumps between frustratingly wearisome and refreshingly heroic. He has no interesting scar, ‘chosen one’ label or elderly mentor to set him apart. He is instead every bit the average man, preferring animals to humans. Waterston holds a more reserved performance, likeable only in the fact we get to know more about her, through flashback, than we do Newt. Veteran actors Jon Voight and Samantha Morton however are criminally underused, in what will likely go down as their most thankless roles to date. Depth is, in fact, missing from most of the characters, including the whole MACUSA horde, better known as American’s magical counterparts to the Ministry of Magic, who are just plain unlikable. Even the most redeeming among them, a female mix-raced president, proves to be bland and basic.
Ultimately, no matter how hard Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tries to catch the magic of the original, it slips away like a memory in a pensieve, the gaping hole instead filled with the reality of the film’s cash-grab nature. It’s predictable, it’s formulaic and it’s far from fantastic. But thinking back, what adventure series that wasn’t based on a carefully calculated novel, constructed over years, has turned out great first try around? So although like the encyclopaedic book it’s based on, there is lots of information but little soul, thankfully it teaches us that there’s no point worrying about whether future films will be handled the same way. If only because that means we’ll be suffering twice.
Rating: 3 Fantastic Beasts out of 5
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