Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ constrained by messy storytelling

An edited version of this review originally ran in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.

 

I’ll admit it: I was one of seemingly the very few who wasn’t particularly enamored by the idea of a new franchise set in what can only be referred to now as a Harry Potter cinematic universe.

Having read the Harry Potter books and watched each of the previous eight movies more than a few times, I was perfectly satisfied with the universe J.K. Rowling has created. The amount of breadth, even before the advent of Pottermore, was enriching to the point that I was content even with the more ambiguous details in the history of Rowling’s world.

After watching “Fantastic Beasts” – the first in a reported five films which will attempt to turn that ambiguity into canon – my mind hasn’t really changed, and I don’t find myself counting down the days until the sequel.

That being said, “Fantastic Beasts” does add some new things to the wizarding world many are so familiar with, and as long as you can get past the messy tangle of narratives and frustratingly expendable characters, the film becomes an entertaining and satisfying watch for most fans.

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While “Fantastic Beasts” is as visually spectacular as we’ve come to expect from the universe, the film suffers from being perhaps the toughest to follow out of all nine movies in the universe. Rowling definitely wrote the screenplay; while it has its moments of storytelling grandeur, a novel would instead be the best way to tell her ambitious story with its multitude of storylines that intersect in confusing ways.

Some characters are clearly not needed, and as a result the motives and stories of others are not as fleshed out as they could be. One particular moment of emotional appeal at the film’s end is nowhere as effective as it should be.

It also slows the movie down to the speed of a Cleansweep Eleven broomstick after a Firebolt-esque start. The first act is exceptionally well-done, focusing on Newt Scamander and what he’s hiding in his suitcase. An early sequence in a New York bank is hilarious and moves along swiftly, but the moment it becomes clear that Scamander’s story disappointingly won’t be the focus for much of the movie the story becomes less organic, its plot cues more forced.

It’s almost as if Rowling was so concerned about writing a predictable story that she offered a number of plotlines in the hopes that at least one will be compelling.

“Fantastic Beasts” does introduce new themes that haven’t been explored in the universe, including Muggle – sorry, “No Maj” – paranoia and the fragile line that keeps wizarding society under the covers. They initially appear to be much darker stories when compared to the Potter films, but when you remember that those centered around a terrorist with no regards for the lives of schoolchildren, “Fantastic Beasts” isn’t incredibly provocative.

David Yates – who also directed the last four Potter entries – provides an aesthetic much like the one fans fell in love with before, despite the change in setting. Trademark visual cues like the logo hovering ominously through the clouds and moving pictures in newspapers bringing us up to speed on backstory are used. Even the film’s bureaucrats are frustratingly closed-minded, much like Ministry of Magic politicians.

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The varied, imaginative creature design is also top-notch, the spotlighted beasts providing memorable sequences of their own that make for the film’s highlights.

Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl) its the world about as believably as one would expect, and when the film isn’t pretending to make lead protagonists out of other characters, his scenes steal the show. He is a vehicle of confident naiveté, his nervous smile and even his gait rounding out a fantastic turn as the title character.

Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice, Steve Jobs) also effectively embraces her role as a former Auror who has fallen from grace, conveying a quietly determined performance opposite Redmayne’s clumsy Scamander.

Tight, cohesive narratives helped make the Potter films so strong. The main problem with “Fantastic Beasts” is that isn’t sure where to focus its storytelling efforts. Because of that, it’s tough to walk away with the same amount of wonder as some of the strongest Potter entries.

 

“Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler       

Directed by David Yates

2016                   

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