Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Fantastic (Beasts) Review

Harry Potter fan here. Let's get that clear from the start.

As such, I argue the designation suitably qualifies me to determine whether or not the most recent addition to the Harry Potter universe, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," does the universe proud. I am, however, reasonably demanding of movies, which means "Fantastic Beasts" had better do more than offer a few passing Harry Potter references in an otherwise underwhelming and unrelated mess.

Fortunately, while "Fantastic Beasts" might not be the most streamlined ship in J.K. Rowling's armada, it is solidly built and should carry viewers safe and sound to the coming sequel.

Let's begin with the negatives, the greatest of which is editing.

The many different scenes are well-crafted and interesting to behold, but some drag on a bit too long and are strung together in ways that don't allow time for any of the individual storylines to develop sufficiently. As a result, "Fantastic Beasts" manages to be both slow-paced and choppy. Like having a long, dull, frequently interrupted conversation with a famously fascinating person, it leaves you wanting. You get a little of the witch hunters, an intriguing angle that needed better set up, but just as the characters begin to pique your interest and you're hoping to learn more about them, the movie takes you elsewhere. You get a glimpse of the political governance of the American magical world before being whisked elsewhere. You get a little of the obvious bad guy, a compelling Colin Farrell in an under-developed role, before the movie again takes you elsewhere.

The elsewhere to which the movie keeps taking you is the second-biggest problem with "Fantastic Beasts." Namely, the beasts.

They are whimsically fun. They are appropriately cute and/or frightening. And they are a seemingly endless collection of magical creatures that have little to no bearing on the story of good versus evil that should have been the focus of this film. In short, they are enjoyably superfluous and occupy far too much screen time. It doesn't help that Eddie Redmayne is allowed to bring little more to Newt Scamander than introverted mumbling and an awkwardly shy grin, and any potential chemistry between Redmayne and Katherine Waterston is, largely, squandered. Even Scamander's purpose for being in the States, to return a winged magical creature to the wilds of Arizona, is largely inconsequential, except to prove unreasonably convenient toward the end of the movie.

Helping save the day, both as supporting heroes within the story and as entertainment for the viewer, are Dan Fogler as a non-magical bystander drawn into the adventure against his will and Alison Sudol as a mind-reading witch. The two play well off each other and lend a much-needed, endearing playfulness.

In some ways, Fogler's Jacob should have been the main character, allowing the audience to witness the tale unfolding around him as he discovers the magical world, puzzles over the mysterious developments of the plot, and falls in love with Sudol's Queenie. His progression from bafflement and fear to wonderment and acceptance is the best performance in the film, whereas Sudol looks like she's having tremendous fun and its effect is infectious. It would be a shame of near criminal proportion if the two do not feature prominently in the coming sequels.

In all, "Fantastic Beasts" remains loyal to Rowling's creation while taking us in new and entertaining directions, just barely managing to rise above its clunky aimlessness. The degree to which I'm willing to forgive its shortcomings depends on the how well the sequels avoid them.

2016 Mark Feggeler

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