Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 133 mins

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ has been greatly anticipated ever since it was announced and is a spin-off on the Harry Potter series. Although the film shares the same name as the textbook J.K. Rowling wrote and features the wizard Newt Scamander, the pen name Rowling wrote under, this is a completely different story to Harry Potter. This deals with Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) who arrives into New York City with a suitcase of these beasts which unfortunately escape and he has to retrieve them all with the help of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror of MACUSA (the American equivalent to the Ministry of Magic), her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who is a non-wizard, a No-Maj (American term for a Muggle) who is the audience’s port of call into this world and who we can empathise with. At the same time, MACUSA are trying to protect wizards from humans as there are several circumstances where non-wizard territories are attacked by a strange presence with Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) heading up this investigation and also a character called Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an organisation tasked with exposing and killing witches and wizards. In the director’s chair again is David Yates who was behind the last four Harry Potter films and also directed this Summer’s ‘The Legend of Tarzan‘ which I really liked. Yates is an accomplished director and knows this world very well so I’m confident he’ll do a good job. The cast assembled is also very strong and features some big names who hopefully will be able to do this content justice. J.K. Rowling herself has penned the screenplay for this film so we can be confident for another original story and also as this isn’t an adaptation of a novel, there aren’t any storylines for the director to cut out or change which I think will work in the film’s favour. Has the wait been worth it or is this just a cash grab to milk more money out of this lucrative franchise?

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ is an extremely well-directed film which features some great performances and superb character development. The story is exceptionally well-crafted (did we ever not have faith in Rowling in this department?) and I’m especially impressed that the film that we got is a very different one compared to what the trailers suggested – the film has a lot of surprises and twists and storylines that were not shown in the trailers and this is a very strong move. Yates continues to impress me with his direction and again, is a great match for this material and there are numerous sequences that are perfectly crafted which he is able to conjure a very atmospheric tone. Yates may well have his naysayers but I strongly disagree. The tone Yates goes for is very well judged and the film is very dark for a 12A, perhaps more so than the Harry Potter series and he manages to blend darkness, spectacle and humour perfectly. The film however is a little heavy-handed when it comes to romance. Another flaw the film battles is due to the amount of content it has to set up, the first hour is a little uneven compared to the second half when the film fully lets rip but the film is always very engaging and entertaining. This film is the first of what is envisaged to be a 5-film franchise which I would be really interested in but I do think there are some problems that this film sets up for the second film.

J.K. Rowling’s story is generally really well thought out and is surprisingly fairly low on exposition which I was expecting seeing as there is a lot of material to set out. It does have some ties to Harry Potter but this is a proper standalone series which goes for its own unique tone and an engaging set of characters. As mentioned, why this film works particularly well on the story front is because this isn’t an adaptation of a novel so there aren’t any storylines to cut out or change so the film feels a lot more refined and well-rounded. Moving into spoiler territory, it has been announced that this series will culminate in the battle between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald which should be a spectacle to behold and this film does begin to set up Grindelwald as a presence in this series so it’ll be interesting to see how this develops. The film has a fair amount of surprises and twist that the marketing has held back which is very reassuring and seeing this story unfold on-screen was a wonder to behold. Rowling’s decision to set this story in New York is an interesting one as we get to see how the wizarding world differs across the Atlantic and Rowling does this with ease. The film is surprisingly very coherent with the amount of content it has to juggle and I never got confused or lost in the narrative which has not been the case with certain superhero films that have been released this year for instance.

The performances in this film are very strong and characters are well-developed and by the end of the film, we really do care for a lot of these characters. Eddie Redmayne makes for a strong lead and is very charismatic and off-beat as Scamander and is someone that I would be happy to spend 5 films with. Out of Waterston, Fogler and Sudol who accompany Redmayne, it is Fogler who makes the biggest impression as the loveable, innocent Jacob Kowalski who dreams of owning a bakery and is a character who the audience can really resonate with as he not only works in this imaginary narrative but is also someone we can relate to in real life. The supporting cast are all really strong too but it is Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller who make the biggest impression, particularly Farrell who gives a very nuanced, sinister performance. I also really liked Jon Voight’s character who plays the father of a US Senator and his character is clearly channeling Donald Trump which resonated very well too. Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo and Ron Perlman round up the supporting cast and all are sound in their roles. The film also features a cameo by Johnny Depp which was announced a few weeks prior to the release of this film as the villain of this franchise, Gellert Grindelwald and although it is just a cameo, I am a little nervous. I don’t think Depp is a match for this material and where we do see him in the film, he again puts in a very theatrical performance as opposed to a nuanced one which could be problematic for this franchise in future. Don’t get me wrong, I think Johnny Depp is one of the strongest leading actors alive today and has done some excellent work but I just cannot picture him in this role with this material. Hopefully a fleshed-out rule in future sequels will tell but for now, I am trepidatious.

James Newton Howard’s score is an interesting one. I gave the score a listen before I watched the film and really didn’t like it and thought it was extremely lazy but when I finally saw the film, his score compliments the film very well in places and is very memorable. It’s still a little lazy in places but there are enough original themes to balance it out. The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot is well-judged and Rousselot manages to balance the dark themes and colourful surroundings of New York to a tee. He has had a very strong year so far and also did great work with Shane Black’s ‘The Nice Guys’.

Ultimately, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ is a brilliant film that again is carefully directed by David Yates and works as a great standalone film with a strong narrative and well-developed multi-dimensional characters. I was utterly enthralled with this film from start-to-finish and cannot wait to see how this narrative develops into future sequels. That said, I am a little concerned with how Johnny Depp’s performance will influence future films and the decision to expand this to five films does seem to be a late one as this standalone film is so well-rounded in its arc and you can tell that some storylines have been bolted on late into the film to allow this franchise to emerge. But as for this film, Yates can be very proud of himself that he has managed to deliver not one, but two great films this year that you can clearly see his stamp on them and both cast and crew can be happy that this film manages to not only live up to the legacy of the Harry Potter series but also shift this brand into a new direction.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

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