24 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was always going to face something of an uphill struggle. The Harry Potter franchise is one of the most successful of the 21st century so far, beloved by millions all over the world - a spin-off from that was always going to seem like something of a cash grab, regardless of J. K. Rowling's level of involvement. I'm pretty much as big a Harry Potter fan as you are likely to meet, and yet the possibility of a totally unnecessary spin-off coming along and damaging the property's well-earned reputation had me more than a little worried.

I shouldn't have been. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is by no means the perfect movie, but it still offers a good enough reason to revisit the magical world that J. K. Rowling created - and that's all it ever really need to do.

Set way back in 1926 (around about 65 years before "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows magizoologist Newt Scamander as he arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical animals. Unfortunately, after a mix-up at a Muggle bank involving a particularly audacious Niffler and a large amount of gold, several magical animals escape from Newt's suitcase, sending him on an almost literal wild goose chase around New York city with Muggle Jacob Kowalski and ex-Auror Tina Goldstein in tow.

This is the whimsical hook with which Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them draws you back into the world of witches and wizards, but the real story - one that seems to be setting up what the rest of this franchise will be about - lies in the background, dealing with the appearance of an Obscurial (someone who repress their magic out of fear and ends up unable to control it) in New York and the rise of a dark wizard whose name should ring a pretty large bell for anyone who has read the Harry Potter books. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn't exactly successful at balancing these two aspects of itself (in fact, the two stories only really start to interact with each other in the films finale - an odd structure for a film to take to say the least), which means that it often falls to the cast to keep audiences engaged in what is going on.

And for the most part they succeed, despite these characters all being varying degrees of underwritten. Eddie Redmayne is fantastic as Newt Scamander, playing the character (who I believe is meant to be on the autistic spectrum - is this the first time a big budget family film has been lead by a character with autism?) with a sense of wonder, curiosity and compassion that instantly means he fits in as a natural, authentic part of this world. His level of involvement with the real story of the film is something of a problem (you have to wonder how they'll fit this character into the sequels, assuming they are heading in the direction they seem to be heading in), but the fact remains that I'd happily spend a lot more time with this character in future films.

Much the same is true of Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as the Goldstein sisters, and especially Dan Fogler as Muggle Jacob Kowalski - he's inarguably the MVP of the movie, hilarious yet believable throughout, pretty much single-handedly responsible for really selling the films ending on an emotional level. The performance Fogler gives - wide-eyed, awestruck, enraptured by this world and those who inhabit it - is one of the more vital aspects of how Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages to recapture the sense of magic present in the Harry Potter books/films, and he can't be given enough credit for that.

Because if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had failed to recapture that magic, its flaws - of which there are many - would be both more obvious and more damaging. The clumsy structure of the thing makes it clear that J. K. Rowling is more suited to writing novels than screenplays, and the film loses much of its charm as soon as it veers into what I assume is intended to be the over-arching story of this franchise - Johnny Depp manages to be predictably, laughably terrible in even a 10 second cameo, which is really worrying when he is set to be a huge part of this story going forwards.

Which means that as a film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is fine, a fun if uneven couple of hours at the cinema that entertains more than it doesn't. But it's also a fascinating addition to this world, and from that perspective it's difficult to fault. Your mileage will vary with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them based on how much you like the larger Harry Potter franchise - but for fans of this world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a must see, one that I'm already looking forward to revisiting in the future.

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