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Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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So… Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, aka the film absolutely nobody asked for, but good old J. K. is going to shove down our throats anyway, right?

That’s certainly the opinion I’ve heard voiced the most, and I too was amongst the naysayers, but I have to admit that albeit reluctantly I was charmed. Charmed.

We start off with a slightly clunky newspaper clipping montage to set the scene: New York in the ‘20s. It’s exposition for those less than engaged fans who haven’t read up on the history of magic in North America on Pottermore, so we’ll forgive it. It also introduces the fact that Grindelwald is on the loose. Remember Dumbledore’s old bosom buddy who turned out to basically be a magic Nazi? Yeah, that’s who we’re dealing with here. Basically Voldemort mark 1 is on the loose, and there’s a mysterious beast causing havoc in New York. Cue our hero.

National treasure Eddie Redmayne basically plays his bumbling, slightly awkward but ultimately endearing self. He’s one of those actors you forget wasn’t in the Harry Potter films anyway, so he fits right in. He sure does love those animals a whole lot, and it actually gets pretty moving at times, which sounds ridiculous, but I’m not even joking. The bulbous glowing rhino thing, the huge snake-bird things, the funny little pilfering mole thing - Redmayne acts the hell out of having a genuine emotional connection to all of them.

Okay, fine, I’m downplaying for comedic effect - the beasts were pretty fantastic. The filmmakers certainly didn’t pass up the opportunity to go wild with their imaginations and come up with some cool little critters. Cinematographically, though the streets of NYC in November are pretty drab, we’re treated to some incredible shots of these animals in their natural landscapes - it really is something to see!

Rowling also didn’t skimp on new magical concepts. The Magical Congress of the United States of America, aka McUSA (which they say out loud like it’s a Scottish name… wild) is totally as dysfunctional and ridiculous as the Ministry of Magic. I won’t spoil you, but be warned - their justice system is pretty dark, even for the 1920s. Their president’s role is arbitrary in the film and seemingly in her whole administration, but Carmen Ejogo gets to sport some fabulous outfits. More plot-relevant is Colin Farrell’s tall dark and mysterious auror character, whose hunt for the beast leads him to the undoubted star of the film: Ezra Miller as creepy orphan Credence. We all saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, we know the guy’s good, but it really is startling how good he is here.

In some impressive actual acknowledgement of real world history by Ms Rowling, we get not only references to wizards taking part in WW1, but also a lot of talk of the Salem Witch Trials. The atmosphere of persecution plaguing the wizarding world is actually quite well done…but probably could have benefitted from a more diverse cast. Just because the magic president isn’t white, doesn’t mean everyone else has to be.

Anyway, the plot’s pretty much as convoluted as this review probably is - Newt’s trying to find his escaped creatures, with the help of No-Maj (that’s Muggle to you and me) Jacob Kowalski who was just trying to get a loan to open a bakery and somehow got caught up in this mess. Dan Fogler’s physical comedy is on point, and bonus, everything needs to get explained to him so he’s a walking exposition generator too! Also on the case is disgraced McUSA Investigator Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The need to have one drab and serious brunette sister and one pretty blonde ditzy sister, one to get the job done and one to have the romantic subplot, is honestly pretty insulting. Like, it’s 2016.

The whole gang play their roles convincingly enough, but here’s the kicker: it’s just so hard to connect emotionally. The whole reason Harry Potter works at all is because of the thick, thick rose-tinted nostalgia glasses we all see it through. With this one, though, there’s no connection to these characters or the threat facing them. We know the magical world doesn’t get exposed in America in the 20s, because the whole series wouldn’t have happened if it had been. And I challenge you to get more emotionally attached to any single character more than you do to the little stick-insect bowtruckle that hides in Newt’s lapel - you won’t be able to. I literally had to look up every single character’s name to write this review - that’s how forgettable they are.

Honestly, that’s where the whole thing falls a little flat. There are some super interesting new magical concepts introduced, and I spent the whole time wanting to know more about them than worrying about the rivalry between the two sons of a No-Maj newspaper tycoon. The world building was always going to be impressive - but unfortunately this film isn’t driven by character at all, and that’s what lets it down. The links to the Harry Potter series feel contrived - namedropping Dumbledore and Hogwarts some feeble attempt to evoke a nostalgia that isn’s relevant to this film at all. There is a mystery or two left up in the air (watch out for Zoe Kravitz… ), but it looks like we’re going to have to sit through another four films, so there’s plenty of time to clear all that up.

Overall an enjoyable film, but low expectations definitely helped towards that. Not groundbreaking, nothing like Harry Potter at all, but you’re kind of obliged to watch it. It’s certainly not as franchise-ruining as everyone thought it was going to be, let’s put it that way.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is released in the UK this Friday. 

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