FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (Warner Bros.)
Dir. David Yates, Script. J.K. Rowling
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol
Plot: A wizard and a muggle’s briefcases are swapped, causing disastrous consequences for New York and causing Warner Brothers’s pockets to deepen.
So…they were that desperate. Warner’s issues have gotten to the point where they’ve finally taken the chance, and called J.K. Rowling’s speed-dial. It feels longer than the five years interval we’ve had between a seventeen year old boy killing a noseless grandfather and the arrival of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, yet another reboot attempt from Warner’s that simply has to work, despite their revisitations of Middle Earth and Metropolis not exactly doing the trick critically. Fact is though, despite Fantastic Beasts definitely being a cash-cow, a prime fillet of steak forged from the fires of consumerist greed, there have been worse signals coming from unnecessary movies: for a start, J.K. has written the screenplay (and will write the next four screenplays in the five-part franchise that, once again, Warner has already announced will be produced) and while novel-writing and film-writing are two very opposite styles, at least it more than has the creator of the Wizarding World’s approval: second, David Yates returns to direct, which would have been fine by me if not for his direction of The Legend Of Tarzan being so bad filmgoers have a legitimate claim of bringing his work to trial in front of a United Nations committee.
So…is this finally the time Warner get it right by doing the same thing over again? Incredibly…I think Fantastic Beasts might have managed it. It’s very rare that revisiting a franchise works – the sheer cynicism of audiences today makes it hard enough a task, let alone the fact that nervy studio execs can’t take a risk for fear that one of them will spontaneously combust at the world premiere. But I’m honest, and genuinely quite pleased, when I say that Fantastic Beasts is not only a relatively welcome addition to the Potterverse, but also has compelling characters that allow this new franchise to stand on its own too. It’s no perfect film (it isn’t a scratch on my personal favourite Potter, Alfonso Cuaron’s truly brilliant Prisoner of Azkaban), but Fantastic Beasts more than gets by on some quite stunningly cute animated magical creatures and an Eddie Redmayne display that positively breaks the cuteness scale, shattering through it with the velocity of a 100,000 bunny rabbits and with the piercing precision of a golden retriever’s longing stare.
But you might say (and if you get enjoyment from this blog, you most definitely will), ‘But James, I’m a cynic beyond moral contempt, no furry freshly caught Cornish pixies (nor Kenneth Branagh’s gorgeous, chiseled jawline as he delivers such lines) could worm their way through the heavily fortified wall that surrounds my heart’. Honestly, I don’t buy that; you’d have to be an axe-murderer not to feel the all-encompassing cuteness of this film. That’s not even counting the creatures either; when Eddie Redmayne, fresh off of his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory Of Everything, it felt like more of a statement casting than anything else. However, while I don’t admit I’m wrong ever, Redmayne is the perfect actor for Newt Scamander, the insular, Asperger-ic protagonist of Fantastic Beasts that is one of the most refreshing main characters in movies for some time. As brash, confident leads have quietly wormed their way into literally every major film quietly, spreading like a plague with delayed symptoms, Newt is a shy type, not suited to big action, only comfortable when alone with his creatures: Eddie nails Newt’s character, and its the little details, such as his loose stride and the way in which he struggles to make eye contact with everybody apart from his beloved beasts – he’s a protagonist that you are going to fall in love with, no matter what barriers you put up against him.
Rowling has also chucked in a number of compelling players in the wings as well – most impressive is Dan Fogler, an actor who I confess wholeheartedly to not being too familiar with, but is a delight to watch. Positioned as a muggle (or a ‘no-maj’, as Rowling has the American wizarding community shoehorn in there because apparently the word ‘muggle’ was just a tad too highbrow), Fogler reacts exactly as we all would if suddenly presented with spells, snifflers and the like, and he is very rarely not hilarious when on screen. Following that up, it was a massive surprise to me just how much humour Fantastic Beasts not only attempted to get in the movie, but how much of it landed: Beasts is funnier than most mainstream comedies, and while it goes for the cutesy humour of Redmayne trying to catch his escaped creatures a little too often, there’s no denying that Rowling hits the sweet spot. Yet another newcomer, Alison Sudol, is also a joy as a skilled legillimens (that’s a mind reader, to those who have not scratched the surface of Potter lore and subsequently are the subject of many gasps and sharp breaths when they confess their blasphemy), and her and Fogler’s chemistry is absolutely excellent. In a sense, the strength of their characters undermines the work of Katherine Waterston, who doesn’t really have an awful lot of depth as an auror (that’s a detective, and if you still need to read these captions, what are you doing?) trying to rebuild her career – Waterston is fine in her role, but feels underserved when compared to the many other characters who I’d much prefer to spend my time with.
And there really are a ton – I haven’t even mentioned the antagonistic forces at work. Colin Farrell, once the Irish Antonio Banderas, and the speaker of such poetic expressions as “I’ve had no memory for as long as I can remember“, shows up and is actually kind of entertaining as a duplicitous dark wizard catcher named Percival Graves, a name so telegraphed to represent death and darkness that it sounds like the alias Gerard Way takes when he goes to the shops. His plan is an awfully complex one: in order to bring about a war of some description, he must locate a highly powerful young wizard with the help of Credence, a squib (in English that’s…you know what, no. You’re not getting my hand-outs. Face the wrath of the Potter fan) of around 16 played by the 24-year old Ezra Miller, whose baby-faced looks Warner couldn’t help exploiting yet again after casting him as The Flash for Zach Snyder’s colossal, inevitably in-cohesive and most definitely self emasculating ‘JUSTICE LEAGUE: PART 1‘, the type of title that presents the greatest threat to narrative cinema since Michael Bay’s virgin birth in an exploding stable. Back to Colin’s plan: in order to convince Ezra Miller of his importance to his mission, and to gain his unquestioning loyalty and devotion, Graves must hold Credence’s head into his chest as if he’s cradling a winged angel fallen from the sky, with all the intimacy and love a mother offers her newborn child (although, in a plot point that does jar massively, motherly love is not something Credence can say he has experienced) – the way I’ve always wanted to be held, really. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a lot of plot in this movie – and unfortunately, a lot of it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rowling is a novel-writer by trade, and while spending the first third of your movie setting up multiple threads and building the world works fine in a novel, the first hour is very heavy, and the plot doesn’t really get going. Once Fantastic Beasts actually finds its gear the film works very well, and Rowling’s jump to screenwriter is a pretty impressive one, but it does take a frustratingly long time to find its feet.
Also, while in this instance taking the style from the Harry Potter movies would have been desirable, it does often feel like a retread visually: David Yates, the director of the last four movies in the original series, is obviously a man I’ve had a recent qualm with, due to what I believe so far was the worst piece of direction of this year and most others with his misguided work on The Legend Of Tarzan. Thankfully, this is a far better film to watch (although so is waterboarding, or the cremation of a dead aunt), but even so I don’t think he’s a visually interesting director. Fantastic Beasts makes use of the same rough shots, the same structures: it even has the effect where exposition is delivered through dynamically thrusting the audience through magically animated newspaper images, although this time Yates makes the subtle change of making it last for what feels like 5 full minutes. The sequences, while technically fantastic, are overcomplicated, and certainly though what is a first hour full of heavy plot and world building Yates doesn’t ease matters with his lack of a central focus. However, once the movie finds its feet, the visuals do improve, and I have to admit that Yates knows the Potterverse better than anybody, and the sequences where wands come out still have the same high-octane feel as they did before.
On a technical note, $180m of panicked investment does go a hell of a long way, and Fantastic Beasts is an excellent production. New York in the 1920s, the film’s setting so as to not get in the way of the original Potter saga and thusly not piss the fanbase off into space, has been gloriously rendered here through a mix of first-rate CGI and Colleen Atwood’s excellent costuming. Fantastic Beasts could have been a bit tighter as well, with what are admittedly amusing and dazzling sequences not really serving the overall plot, and to my mind they felt like more of an excuse to get in more cute creatures (speaking of, a mobile app with all of these creatures essentially ripping off Pokemon Go would make an absolute shitload of money). But for a franchise, and let alone a franchise purposefully existing within the shadow of another, highly successful franchise, and LET ALONE a franchise existing within a world so beloved by so many as this one is, Fantastic Beasts is a highly promising start. While the movie does have a few teething problems, it hints at yet another confection full of narrative riches that good J.K. Rowling stories are: with a hugely investable and refreshing protagonist led by an absolutely brilliant Eddie Redmayne, compelling characters all around, and a few choice plot threads that Rowling has left hanging (including a surprise, which you may know if you’ve checked any movie news sites in recent weeks, but if you haven’t I will leave unspoiled), Fantastic Beasts could not only be a welcome addition to the pre-existing Potterverse, but if got right could become just as memorable of a franchise in its own right. As my now dearly beloved Newt would say, the suitcase has been opened just a smidge.