Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Here's another film that was on my most anticipated list for 2016, and I'm happy to say that I am not embarrassed by that decision like I am with a few of my other choices (ahem, Independence Day: Resurgence...). I don't know how to address the magnitude of my fandom for the Harry Potter universe, except that it's 2nd only to my love for Star Wars. I've read the books more times than I care to admit, and I was able to watch every one of the films during their opening weekend of release (except for Order of the Phoenix, but I was out of the country). With that in mind, I was a bit reticent to jump fully on board with this idea when it was first announced, and it was only after watching the teaser trailer that I began to imagine how fun another entry into the Harry Potter series could be.

In 1926 Newt Scamander is travelling to the United States for the first time, carrying with him a mysterious briefcase filled with magical creatures. There he encounters a small procession of No-Maj's (non-magical humans) that are being warned of the dangers of witchcraft. This comes in the wake of several mysterious occurrences of destruction around the city, and many New Yorkers are beginning to turn to supernatural explanations as a result. 

Matters aren't improved when one of Newt's magical creatures escapes into a bank and begins quietly wreaking havoc, he breaches the Statute of Secrecy by performing magic in plain view of a No-Maj named Jacob, who just failed to procure a loan for his bakery business. Once the creature is recaptured, however, Newt is apprehended by an Auror named Tina, and in all the kerfuffle, his briefcase is swapped with Jacob's, who accidentally unleashes several of the monsters from captivity...

Seems like a pretty straightforward plot, right? Well, it's actually a LOT more complicated than that. This is all being set in the height of Gellert Grindelwald's reign of terror, and all of the magical community is struggling to respond to the panic his dark deeds are inciting. As such, we're separated entirely from the familiar events (and even terminology) that we have grown so accustomed to in the previous 8 films. 

As is surely common knowledge by now, the screenplay was written by J.K. Rowling herself, and given that she is the creator of the entire wizarding world, I was shocked at how restrained she was in her screenwriting debut. Unlike George Lucas or even Peter Jackson, who couldn't help including a myriad of call-backs and references to their previous works to bank on audience nostalgia, Rowling opts for entirely new creations to hook us into this story. We know this is in the same world as the Harry Potter films, but it introduces new concepts, characters and creatures into this world that we love just as much as the familiar ones. It's a bold move, and it paid off perfectly.

The characters are not only fantastically (pun-intended) written, but the actors chosen to bring them to live did an incredible job. Eddie Redmayne in particular brought so much humanity, sincerity, and quirkiness to the part that I found myself wishing I could have seen his years at Hogwarts as well. Not only that, but his love of the magical creatures in his care is infectious (Hagrid would have loved him), and I thought the message of animal conservation was powerful yet subtle enough not to pound you over the head. Newt Scamander is the type of character whose passion consumes his life, and the way Redmayne portrayed that struck me as very authentic. I can't wait to see what his character brings to the future sequels.

I was also impressed with the balance this film struck with its tone. In some moments we're laughing at the cuteness of the creatures or the bizarre situations the characters found themselves, and at other times I was legitimately unnerved by the dark places in which this film occasionally lurks. (Take the PG-13 rating seriously here, folks.) Rowling wasn't afraid to go after heavy material, and the story is all the stronger for it. There are metaphors here as timely and powerful in their own right as the Dementors were, and the potential connection they have to the rest of the wizarding world is fascinating to consider. 

One of the benefits of watching FBAWTFT - yes, even as an acronym it's a mouthful - is not knowing what is going to happen! As an unabashed lover of the Harry Potter books, there was no way the films could ever live up to my expectations. However, with a new film in the wizarding world that isn't an adaptation of any previous material, I was finally able to experience it without the preconceived notions of what was on the page. Not only that, but it effortlessly sets up a new franchise without falling into the trap of not being a satisfying experience on its own. Yet another reason to be impressed with the writing talents of J.K. Rowling.

Even though I loved this movie, there are a few very minor things that were a bit distracting. For one thing, I found the CGI characters a bit unnecessary at certain times, and some of the ending scenes stretched out a bit too long for my taste. However, none of that is enough to drop Fantastic Beasts' score by even a half-star, in my opinion. For every weakness it had, there were twenty other brilliant strengths that more than made up for it. One of those strengths is James Newton Howard's beautiful score, which recaptures that magical feeling of the Harry Potter films, while creating its own themes that I hope carry on into future installments. Go check out the opening music by clicking HERE if you want to get an early taste.

Ultimately, this was not only another great installment into the Harry Potter canon, but simply a great film. The visuals were stunning and brimming over with imagination (much of that thanks to Rowling's incredible creativity, of course), and the story was as layered and thought-provoking as any of the Harry Potter films before it. I had a smile on my face from the moment the Warner Bro's logo came flying at us in typical Harry Potter fashion, and for any fan of the wizarding world I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. For all of those reasons (plus many others that I can't get into, lest I spoil the movie), I'm nudging it over the line and giving it four stars.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence