REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Warner Bros.
Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros.

The following is a review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Five years after the end of the Harry Potter film series, Warner Bros. is ready to bring you another story in the wizarding world of the Rowlingverse: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Make no mistake, this film does not feature Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, or Ron Weasley. In fact, Fantastic Beasts takes place in the 1920s – a very long time before Hagrid told Harry that he was a wizard.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t based on a story by J. K. Rowling, actually. However, Rowling did release a book – under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander (the lead character in this film) – back in 2001. That book was ‘meant’ to be a copy of a textbook that Potter and other students at Hogwarts were assigned to read.

With Fantastic Beasts, director David Yates returns to the rich Rowlingverse. David Yates did a solid job as the director of the last four films in the Harry Potter film series. However, Fantastic Beasts marks the first time that Yates has directed a film in that fictional universe based on a script written entirely by J. K. Rowling and not on a book, per se. Interestingly, Fantastic Beasts is the creator’s screenwriting debut, and I do think that is pretty obvious when you watch the film.

The Harry Potter spin-off film follows Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist, who is bringing a mysterious briefcase – with many of the eponymous beasts in it – with him to America. It is not exactly clear, at first, why he has traveled to North America, but before he’s able to do anything, one of the beasts escapes from the briefcase.

Scamander chases it into a bank, where a muggle – or no-maj, as Americans apparently call them – named Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler) accidentally becomes involved with Scamander’s chase. Before Scamander has a chance to erase Kowalski’s memory, the muggle escapes with the wrong briefcase.

With the eponymous beasts now in the hands of a muggle, Scamander is brought in to the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) by Tina Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterston), who works for Percival Graves (played by Colin Farrell) a high-ranking Auror. However, Graves and Seraphina Picquery (played by Carmen Ejogo), the President of MACUSA, are, to begin with, much more concerned with finding a specific dark wizard than the beasts.

The David Yates Harry Potter films are known for being particularly dark and grown-up. While Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell’s respective Potter films did a lot of the hard work for Yates, in preparing the Potter fans for a darker and more adult universe, it was the Yates films that fully embraced the darkness of the wizarding world.

That said, I didn’t expect this Yates film to be as dark as it is. I can’t really discuss the dark elements of the film due to them being minor spoilers, but what I’ll say is that the Barebone family is surprisingly black-hearted. If you want to watch the film without any more knowledge, then don’t seek out any further information about the Barebones.

But this is, primarily, – or, at least, the first half of the film is – about finding animals that are running wild in New York City. That’s the best part of the film. However, when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them started to be about setting up future films, I started to lose focus and interest. The film is the strongest when focusing on the eponymous beasts.

One of the things that had me very excited about this film, was that actors like Eddie Redmayne and Colin Farrell were joining the Rowlingverse. Redmayne, in particularly, always felt like a good fit for the universe. And he does fit in, but I was, honestly, fairly disappointed with the character he was playing. Redmayne did a good job with the character he was given.

Scamander was likable, but, to me, it felt like the filmmakers didn’t take enough time to introduce him. If Scamander is going to be the protagonist of future films in this new spin-off series, then I’m sure they’ll reveal more things about the character, but I needed more in Fantastic Beasts.

Because, to tell you the truth, the audience surrogate – Kowalski – stole the movie from Redmayne’s Scamander. I was worried about Dan Fogler in this film when I saw the trailers. Maybe that was because I’ve gotten used to muggles in the Harry Potter film series being annoying. But Kowalski was great, extremely likable – even more so than any of the other characters in this film – and I loved his scenes with Alison Sudol’s character.

Sudol played Queenie Goldstein, and that was another standout character. Queenie is the sister of Tina Goldstein, who I didn’t like as much. Waterston does a fine job as Tina, but she’s the least interesting main character. Both Queenie and Tina have love interests, but I only bought the chemistry that Queenie had with her love interest.

The final character that I want to talk about is Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves. I feel like Farrell is a very underrated actor, so to see him in a film like Fantastic Beasts is really nice. Farrell does a really good job here, and while his character wasn’t the most likable or the most exciting, he was the most interesting.

However, I was really disappointed with how his story arc ended in Fantastic Beasts, but I can’t discuss that in a spoiler-free review. I also can’t really discuss Ezra Miller’s character or the two major cameos in this film in-depth. One of the cameos was nice and it hints at the backstory for one of the main characters. But the biggest cameo didn’t have a big impact on me.

I thought the visual effects were really good, not fantastic, but really good. I thought retro New York City looked a little bit lifeless, but the beasts looked really well. Let’s talk a little bit about those eponymous beasts here. I think they are really easy to fall in love with – especially a Niffler, with an eye for shiny things, and a cute little Bowtruckle that Newt comes in close contact with a lot. But I also ended up being really disappointed that their story was secondary to another story, which I thought was really underwhelming.

But while I have a lot of issues with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it is easy to fall back in love with the wizarding world of the Rowlingverse. Huge chunks of the film are really fun and charming, but the second half of the film is underwhelming, and somehow both Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne are outshone by Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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