Wednesday 30 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (2016) - Movie Review

When it comes to looking at any form of media, you’d have a hard time finding a more powerful and influential force than sheer nostalgia. And to help prove this theory, let’s look at the Harry Potter series, a film saga built entirely on nostalgia. Now, I’m not saying this as an immediate negative of the work itself but rather a side effect of the series as a whole. The film series started and concluded at precisely the right times to latch onto the global millennial mindset, creating that rare form of entertainment that people have grown up alongside with. Those who grew up on these films tend to reminisce on them with the same fidelity and clarity as their own real-life schooling experiences. In today’s era of YA films desperately trying to align themselves with teenaged kids, it’s surprising that this series managed to do everything that they have been aiming for without really trying for it. Naturally, with all this in mind, the announcement of a new film set in the same universe was met with the exploding of several animal heads from the shrill levels of squee that were uttered in response. But this is where the flip side of nostalgia kicks in; the thought that what is considered perfect through rose-tinted glasses cannot be improved upon, and any additions to the canon would only sully it. Well, time to put that to the test with today’s film.

The plot: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in 1920’s New York, carrying an enchanted briefcase full of magical creatures. When some of the creatures escape and wreak havoc on the streets, he catches the attention of the Magical Congress, specifically demoted Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Director of Magical Security Graves (Colin Farrell). In the midst of his stop-over in New York, the Wizarding World is on the cusp of all-out war with the Muggles/Non-Majs, and it’s up to Newt, Tina and bystander Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to not only retrieve the escaped creatures, but also get to the bottom of a mysterious force that could end up shattering the line between the normal world and the Wizarding World.

The cast here is really good with a lot of solid casting choices. Redmayne has the gawky but clever Brit persona down pat by this point, and he works well at making Newt come across as a little awkward but still incredibly proficient when it comes to magical creatures. Waterston works well as the very driven and determined witch who brings a lot of emotion to the proceedings. The last film I saw Dan Fogler in was the woeful Good Luck Chuck, so imagine my surprise at how well he plays this affable but loveable normie of the main cast. He basically serves as the audience surrogate and he does a tremendous job at channelling that. Alison Sudol as Tina’s sister is very sweet and charming, Farrell is staggering in how he portrays the surprising depth of his character in terms of morality and how flawlessly he does it, Samantha Morton as the leader of a local anti-Wizarding organization keeps the character from descending into blind hatefulness and comes across as surprisingly even, Ron Perlman as the owner of a magical speakeasy is as memorable as you can expect from one of the most cult-lauded actors in the realms of fantasy, and Ezra Miller as the orphan Creedence is… holy shit, I promise you that you are not prepared for how intense this guy gets.

Not only is this film an introduction into a different era of the Wizarding World than what we saw through Harry Potter, but also a reintroduction into the Wizarding World as a whole after a good five-year gap from almost back-to-back releases. In that respect, this was probably one of the best ways of doing in many aspects. For a start, it does a good job at bringing more of the rich series mythos into the foreground through new locales, characters and creatures, all of which feel like they fit right into the world that gave us Hogwarts. For another, its depiction of those additions is done quite well through slightly wonky but very creatively realized effects work, making this feel like a universe onto itself. I’ve made mention many times before about how much regard I have for good world-building, and this is the kind of film that highlights why I love it when it works as much as I do. I’d hardly call Harry Potter a franchise that needs a new entry point for newcomers but, with how well this film brings imagination to life through not only the Wizarding World but how it is depicted in relation to the real world, this works in that regard as well.

This isn’t exactly the most plot-heavy fantasy film I’ve seen, in all honesty. Mainly a fun magic-filled adventure through old-timey New York, this feels more like a sightseeing tour of the Wizarding World rather than anything resembling strict narrative. That may sound like I’m badmouthing the film, but far from it; if this is meant to give audiences a deeper look into J.K. Rowling’s world, it does that spectacularly and I’m hardly in a mood to argue with it. This is where the world-building aspect comes into play because, between the locales like the magical speakeasy, the Magical Congress and its occasionally terrifying aspects, not to mention how the very streets of New York feel like they’re living and breathing without even a hint of magic being used, this feels like an actual world. After sitting through so many films, fantasy or otherwise, that fail to create that real sense of artificial reality in their stories, trust Rowling to be able to bring standards back to where they should.

Not that this film is entirely mindless, though; again, far bloody from it, as this builds not only on the mythos but also the thematic themes of Harry Potter. From Mudbloods to Voldemort’s magical Reich when he takes over the Ministry of Magic, prejudice has been in the DNA of the series from the beginning. However, for as much as it did indeed help give the series its identity and some of its best dramatic moments, it’s always come across as rather surface-level; just deep enough to make itself work but not so deep as to warrant intense study. And then comes this film, which not only heavily amplifies those notions of prejudice but also transmogrifies them into easily the most morally complex addition to the canon.

This is mainly due to the Obscurus, the mysterious force that is tearing through the city, and Graves’ attempts to track it down. I’ll try not to get into heavy *SPOILERS* territory, but the way this film turns what was already a thinly-veiled bit of darkness from Harry Potter’s backstory and goes full force with it is astounding. Through not only very clever writing but also very stable acting, what should be a clear-cut example of taking down the dark forces turns into a situation where, more than anyone else, the audience sympathies more with the purported ‘dark wizard’ than the main good guys. For a series as morally basic as the one where Pale Noseless Hitler is the main bad guy, this is a remarkable breath of fresh air that shows an ability for variety that indicates rather good things if this is the kick-starter for a new film series. Not only that, the way it highlights how institutes like Hogwarts are so desperately needed in this world strengthens the series’ mythos even more.

All in all, an exemplary addition to the Harry Potter canon that not only reminds audiences of what made it so good and memorable in the first place but also builds on previous themes to create a story that well and truly stands on its own as a good bit of fantasy storytelling. The acting is top-notch, with a very impressive turn from Colin Farrell, the effects work is a little off in places but still succeeds in bringing more of the Wizarding World to life and the writing reaches new avenues for the series that, if this does lead to a new film series, sets a very impressive precedent.

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