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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Maybe Not Fantastic, But Pretty Good Nevertheless"
4 stars

Considering that the Harry Potter film franchise was one of the few long-running screen sagas of note to maintain a reasonably high level of quality throughout its entire run—the lesser entries were never anything less than perfectly entertaining and the best were as dazzling as anyone could have hoped them to be—the idea of bringing the magical universe created by J.K. Rowling back to the screen via a prequel spinoff series inspired by a faux textbook penned by the author that purported to be part of the Hogwarts curriculum, set decades before the Potter stories and centered around a new set of characters may have struck many as an unusually shameless cash grab from a series that had served its audience so well for such a long time. And yet, while “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” may never quite hit the peaks of the best of the straight-up Potter tales, this film, the first of what has already been announced as a five-story saga, pretty much lives up to the considerable reputation of the previous franchise while laying the ground for a new saga with the potential to be just as engaging and entertaining over the long run.

Shifting the time and place from present-day England to New York City circa 1926 and begins with the arrival of one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist charged with caring for the wide variety of oddball creatures that he carries with him within the apparently boundless confines of his seemingly ordinary suitcase. This is a bit of a problem because while England has embraced magic in all its forms, the U.S.A. remains wary of it and beasts of the kind he is carrying have been strictly outlawed by MACUSA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic that is run by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and enforced by aurors such as Percival Graves. (Colin Farrell). Scamander has barely arrived in the city when he gets his suitcase mixed up with one belonging to Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (the American equivalent of a Muggle) who toils in a lifeless job in a factory while dreaming of one day opening a pastry shop. Inevitably, by the time that Scamander and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror who was recently demoted for overstepping her bounds, finally track him down, several of the creatures have escaped into the city.

While Scamander sets off in pursuit of the missing beasts, with the aid of Tina, Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), before they can wreck the city, other troubles are brewing elsewhere. Although the magic community in New York deliberately kept themselves under wraps, there are still tensions with No-Majs and one of the leading voices of that faction is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a zealot who not only preaches endlessly about the evils of magic but who “adopts” the children of the magically endowed families she exposes in order to help further her cause. It seems that one of the kids in her questionable care secretly harbors some incredible powers and one of the more troubled kids, Credence (Ezra Miller), is befriended by Graves in the hopes of figuring out which one it is and utilizing those power for his own twisted ends. As a result, Scamander not only has to find all of his beasts, he must also figure out a way of thwarting Graves and Barebone before America’s entire magic population is exposed to the increasingly suspicious No-Maj population.

Although the first Harry Potter film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” is now generally considered to be one of the lesser efforts in the franchise, it deserves more credit than it usually gets because it faced the difficult tasks of setting up what would eventually prove to be a sprawling narrative, introduce a gallery of characters and, perhaps most importantly, present a world in which the magical and the mundane convincingly coexist with each other. If it had failed in any of those regards, the series would have gotten off on a wrong foot from which it might have never recovered. By comparison, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has a slightly easier time of it because it is banking on the goodwill that the franchise has accumulated over the years and the intense adulation that it has received. If this film were a completely unknown quantity, for example, one might rightly criticize it for focusing almost entirely on establishing both the world and the nuts and bolts of the plot while giving comparatively short shrift to the characters populating them. Of course, hardcore fans of the franchise probably can fill in many of the blanks regarding Scamander and his duties and future films will presumably expand on the characters as well. However, those whose personal relationship to the Potter world ranges from the tenuous to the nonexistent may find it to be a bit of a muddle—at times, I kept thinking of the classic line from ‘Duck Soup” when Groucho remarked “Why, this report is so simple that a four-year-old child could understand it. Run out and get me a four-year old child—I can’t make heads or tails out of it.”

However, even though the more devoted fans will probably get more out of the film as a whole—recognizing names and picking up on references and in-jokes that will fly over the heads of others—there is still a lot to enjoy here. Rowling’s screenplay does an effective job of providing the expected scenes of lavish spectacle while at the same time balancing those flights of fancy with more adult-oriented themes about tolerance that give the story more legitimate dramatic heft than one might expect. Having directed the last four Potter films, bringing David Yates back to do this film, as well as the next installment, was a wise move that helps to provide an artistic link between the two series thanks to his ability to merge together the realistic and the fantastic—all the more important this time around since more of the story takes place in the real world—without getting too bogged down in the magical minutiae. The special effects are as spectacular as one could possibly hope for, though the sheer preponderance of them may prove to be a bit wearying to some as the film goes on. As for the human element, all of the actors manage to find just the right tone for the material in the way that they approach it seriously—though not too seriously—instead of just coasting through and condescending to what they are working with. Of the actors, the standout is Alison Sudol, an actress previously unknown to me who pretty much steals every single scene that she is in as Queenie, whose immediate attraction to Jacob provides the film with some of its most endearing moments. I can’t say that I have any particular expectations regarding future films in this series but as long as she remains a part of them, I will greet them with at least some degree of genuine optimism.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” may not be a great movie by any means—it doesn’t quite live up to the admittedly astronomical standards set by the Harry Potter films and the story seems more interested in laying the groundwork for future installments than in presenting a completely compelling narrative on its own. That said, it has been made with a lot of style and skill and comes across as much more than the simple cash-in opportunity that it might have initially appeared to be when it was first announced. Assuming that the filmmakers are able to keep up the quality control in the same way that they did with the Potter films, there is no reason why this series should not ultimately prove to be as artistically and emotionally satisfying when all is said and done.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for “fantasy action violence” and since it is a film with tremendous kid appeal, some parents may be wondering if it is suitable for their own children. Although there is nothing gory to speak of in the film, there are some admittedly dark and scary parts—including a couple of straight-up killings along the way—and the story as a whole has a certain intensity to it that fits in with its largely adult cast of characters and which is pretty much the equal of the admittedly bleaker later Potter films. For most kids, especially those around 10 or so, it should be fine but be warned that it might prove to be a little too overwhelming for younger or more sensitive children.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27569&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/17/16 12:26:42
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User Comments

5/06/17 Wun Hung Lo Garbage 1 stars
3/05/17 Tracey Ibbetson Thought the film was brilliant 5 stars
12/02/16 James Remar Harry Potter was garbage and so is this rubbish ! ! !. 1 stars
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  18-Nov-2016 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Mar-2017


  DVD: 28-Mar-2017

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