Dear Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Less Magic is More
- Shawn McEvoy Director of Editorial
- 2016 16 Nov
There's a lot of polish on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it just didn't all get rubbed in or off. The result is a few unclear spots and a gloppy trail leading into an uncertain future of sequels. It's definitely a big-screen event with a Rowling spark, but it loses something without the innocence of student stars. There's such a thing as too much wizardry when special effects trump emotions. 3 out of 5.
Want Another Take? Watch Our Video Review of Fantastic Beasts
It's 1926, a.k.a. about 54 years before one Harry Potter will be born. British magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), once expelled from Hogwarts for reasons that remain unclear even after this film, visits New York City carrying a case bursting at the seams with magical creatures. Newt is awkward in a way similar to others who relate better to animals than people, but he's soon crossing paths with canning factory worker and would-be bakery shop owner Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a 'No-maj' (the American version of a Muggle). Their partnership is the nexus of a perfect storm, as the accidental release of some of Newt's beasts converges with a rough time in the American magical community. MACUSA (the U.S. version of the Ministry of Magic) is dealing with, among other things, citizens who want to bring back Salem-style witch hunts, a strange malevolent force that can tear up the streets, and the unknown whereabouts of a European dark wizard from the original Potter series...
Lots! Most notably, Easter Eggs and Fogler's Kowalski character. Fans of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world (I'm one of them) will perk up when certain names are mentioned in passing, or certain symbols appear, or when we get to see beasts that were only footnotes in the Harry Potter stories (bowtruckles, erumpents and nifflers, oh my!) take starring roles. The similarities and differences between British and American magical communities are interesting to follow; we're just left wanting more. Kowalski is an excellent Everyman, a stand-in for all us Muggles who would just love to go along for the ride on a magical adventure, so in need of wonder in our lives are we. The musical score is, as expected, a highlight, but, as you'll see below, the sound is not. The trips inside Newt's suitcase are truly wonders to behold, but I also found myself wanting to hit the pause button. Alison Sudol plays Queenie, the sister of disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and brings some much-needed levity to the proceedings. A blossoming forbidden romance between Queenie and Kowalski is beautiful and believable; one between Newt and Tina, not as much.
Again, lots. First, the sound. It was so much of a distraction that I think this movie would have been better going in one of two directions - either subtitle it (which is the first thing I'll be doing when I rent the DVD), or remove the talking altogether (hey, that's not as crazy as it sounds given the 1920s setting). I pretty much followed the plot via visual clues anyway. For starters, Newt Scamander is a bit of a mumbler, and while that works for his character, it does nothing for an audience who actually wants to understand what he said. On top of that, the bombastic action and high-volume score also drowned out a lot of dialogue (NOTE: I'm hearing feedback that these sound issues are common in IMAX showings, but not in standard ones).
Fantastic Beasts is a special effects bonanza, but if you happen to be looking for story, world building, and to fall in love with characters, all the effects in the world can't create magic. Some reviews have pointed out how this film is reminiscient of some of the worst from Marvel's cinematic universe, and insasmuch as this relates to setting up future stories at the expense of itself, that's certainly fair criticism. A subplot involving Samantha Morton as a fearmongering proponent of a "second Salem" is more disturbing and confusing than helpful, interesting or even cautionary.
Going into Fantastic Beasts I wondered: will this movie be better because it doesn't have to spend half its time looking at the lives of students and what they do in their classes? Or will it lose something valuable because of it? In hindsight I believe what was lost was the opportunity for a better set-up; this one meanders as it tries to find its way. Despite the 2-hour, 12-minute run time, we haven't a chance to truly get sucked into the world... to take a journey with characters we care about rather than rush from one action piece to another. Even so, I grant that further hindsight in the form of more movies to come could yet make Fantastic Beasts look better once we know more about the tale.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
As with all movies in the Harry Potter universe, the subject of wizardry/witchcraft and the degree to which is it more like mutant powers (see: X-Men) or Force powers (Star Wars) in that it is something people are born with and must decide how to use, versus seeking out the occult, is something audiences must grapple with. That said, this movie, with its setting in America some 230 years after the Salem witch trials, has more of a meta thing going on with itself and the audience. And in fact that is one of the themes the movie wants to explore - the destructiveness in distrust and xenophobia on all sides of a conversation that isn't happening. Another is the damage done when suppressing children from becoming their true selves.
Newt has a love, arguably even a sacrificial one, for saving and understanding creatures of all kinds. A hope and optimism shines through most of the dread and dull tones of the movie. We're encouraged to always be aware of the wonder around us. Genuinely good characters (and animals) triumph over evil.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
- Language/Profanity: Nothing major noted; a few minced oaths and 'oh my gosh' exclamations; "bugger".
- Sexuality/Nudity: A woman is half-seen around a corner magically putting a dress on over her undergarments, but it's not very revealing, even though the dress is low-cut; the same woman can and has read the thoughts of men who look at her, and alludes to what these men have been thinking; one of Newt's escaped creatures resembles a large rhino, and she's in heat. Newt performs something of a fertility dance to entice her to capture, while another character ends up unwittingly donning the musk of a male of that species, resulting in pursuit by the excited female. A simple romantic kiss.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Bruises, removal of belts, and other references to children being abused; most of Newt's creatures are harmless, but some are more menacing, at least in appearance; police pull guns on Newt & Jacob believing they are robbing a jewelry store; MACUSA utilizes a disturbing version of the death penalty in which two characters are almost drowned in a pool of their own memories; a powerful malevolent force is loosed upon the city, and things get very loud and scary for a while, including a couple of deaths where the corpses are shown strangely marked.
Drugs/Alcohol: One scene takes place in a 20s-style speak-easy. The drinking is played for laughs, especially when Jacob downs a couple shots of something called Gigglewater. A vial of venom from one of Newt's creatures is released into a rain cloud to wipe the memories of citizens.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: The best reviews for this film will come from those who are all at once animal lovers, fantasy fans, and action junkies. Also, adult Harry Potter fans whose favorite moments in the original series involved the world/universe more than the school/students.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Anyone uncomfortable with the word 'witchcraft,' even if what's shown here bares little resemblance to the actual biblically-forbidden practice. Also, adult Harry Potter fans whose favorite moments in the original series involved the school/students more than the world/universe. Fantastic Beasts is not really a film for pre-teens with its violent depictions of evil and a poorly developed character who hunts witches and abuses her adopted children.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David Yates, opens in theaters November 18, 2016; available for home viewing March 28, 2017. It runs 132 minutes and stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo and Ron Perlman. Watch the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: November 17, 2016