Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York's secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.
I. Love. This. Movie. I've honestly been getting a little tired this year with big budget films. Almost all of them have been lackluster at best and straight-up awful at worst. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the revitalizing reminder I so desperately needed that big budget movies do still have the capability to be great. Well done, guys. Let's dive in!
So, first off, what does the movie do right? Besides a lot. First off, the film had a lot to live up to going back into the Harry Potter universe. There's no doubt J.K. Rowling has struggled to recapture the magic of the main saga of Harry Potter since The Deathly Hallows was released back in 2007. But she has certainly found it with Fantastic Beasts. This story feels like it belongs in the Harry Potter universe, despite actually taking place in America. (And not without controversy surrounding this decision) The dialogue feels like Harry Potter, the creatures feel like Harry Potter, the settings feel like Harry Potter, the imagination feels like Harry Potter. Right from the opening moments of the film, where we are greated with a wonderfully edited magical newspaper montage, (complete with the trademarked "alive" pictures) I felt like I was watching a Harry Potter movie. This rigorous and painstaking attention to detail throughout the 133 minute film played a big role in allowing me to get sucked in and carried away.
In addition to wonderful set design and great writing from J.K. Rowling herself, you had some of the best acting I've seen yet in a film this year. Eddie Redmayne, one of (if not the) best actors in Hollywood right now, continues his hot streak with another fantastic performance as Mr. Scamander. No doubt this new franchise has its poster child, and this was blaringly obvious from the onset of this film. He was fun, charming, mysterious, and quirky, delivering a performance that you may very well see again in my Third Annual Awesome Actor Awards. Redmayne also had a strong supporting cast around him, featuring great and equally memorable performances from Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, (where did this performance come from???? This is the guy who stared in the terrible Balls of Fury back in 2007) and Alison Sudol. I really appreciated that outside of Redmayne this core supporting cast was composed of relative unknowns, as there's no doubt in my mind that every one of them will be overnight superstars because of this film.
Finally, you had fantastic visual effects. David Yates directed every Harry Potter movie starting with Order of the Pheonix, but I kind of got the feeling watching this that only now has CGI technology caught up with what he wanted the Harry Potter universe to look like back in the 2000's. It was already hard enough going back to watch the special effects of Philospher's Stone (released in 2001) and it will only get harder with the release of Fantastic Beasts. But there's no doubt the special effects, likely the front-runners for the Academy Awards this year, helped build the Harry Potter universe and add to the magic that is Fantastic Beasts.
That said, this film is not perfect. Sadly Fantastic Beasts suffers from the same problems that many modern-day superhero movies do: it has a lackluster and forgettable villain. In fact, the main storyline involving the villain is nothing more than just a placeholder, and it leads to a laughably unsatisfactory ending that sets up future films. There is one very recognizable actor (or actress, to keep you in suspense) that shows up right at the end and delivers exactly two lines, and it signified to me a distributor-mandated requirement to "get people excited for the sequel." As if anything with the Harry Potter name on it isn't going to make a billion dollars. It was sadly a major opportunity wasted at the hands (in all likelihood) of Warner Brothers. Fortunately though this really didn't take away from the overall film too much because I think this film was more about world building and finding these mystical beasts than it was about having a strong villain. However, if the villain does turn out to be great and have a major role in future installments, it may be hard to watch this film in the future and not feel like it's doing nothing more than sequel-baiting.
Oh! I forgot to mention cinematography. The cinematography was fantastic all throughout this film, delivering the same sweeping shots fans came to know and love from Yates's previous Harry Potter installments.....with one major exception. The final sequence was a little hard to follow. There was simply too much going on, and the editing was too harsh and the cinematography too chaotic for me to know where everything was in correlation to everything else, and it left me rather discombobulated. But this is a relatively small complaint in an overall great film.
Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts is a STRONG addition to the Harry Potter franchise. It does a great job establishing the world and lore of Harry Potter, and future installments will definitely be better because of it. I went into this movie skeptical, but you don't have to. Set those expectations high, wizards. Fantastic Beasts will certainly meet them. Now will someone PLEASE take me to Harry Potter world?
The Critique: Fantastic Beasts finally recaptures the magic J.K. Rowling has been searching for since she concluded her original saga and reboots the Harry Potter franchise in a big way with one of the better films of the year so far.
The Recommendation: It will live up to your expectations. See it day one with confidence.
The Verdict: 8/10 Great.
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