Something is in the air this season. Is it coolness in the temperature signaling that the holidays are almost upon us? Is it the aroma of wonderfully cooked meals as we prepare to spend the upcoming week with friends and family? Or could it be something more “magical?”
It was only two weeks ago that a very serious sorcerer came upon the movie scene in Doctor Strange, and now we are revisiting the enchanting world that J.K. Rowling first introduced us to 15 years ago with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. From there spawned a franchise that unquestionably filled the coffers and made the top executives over at Warner Bros. extremely happy. Now they are pinning their hopes on this new film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but can Rowling and the filmmakers actually capture lightning in a bottle a second time?
Set in 1926, a young Englishman with a very unusual suitcase arrives in New York, and almost immediately trouble starts to follow. After a series of unusual events surrounding some magical, and in many cases, mischievous animals, our young Englishman (Newt Scamander played by Eddie Redmayne) and a No-Maj (the American version of a Muggle) come to the attention of a slightly bumbling American witch, and from there we are given a full look as to the seriousness of the magical community at that time.
With the Harry Potter films the audience came to understand that the world of wizards, witches, and all forms of magic, was kept from the non-magical population. Here we see it again, except it presents itself in the form of witch-hunts. What makes this so wonderful is that it serves as a metaphor for a variety of different ideas, both historical, and oddly enough current. The magical community has gone underground, not for the protection of the No-Maj population, but for their own. They fear a war is coming, and with the threat of one of the greatest dark wizards of that time (Gellert Grindelwald) the Wizarding World finds itself both hidden and on guard. It is no wonder that when Scamander arrives that they immediately have a knee-jerk reaction to his presence and the animals he has in tow. The fear could be a parallel to some minority demographics that have become increasingly afraid in a culture brewing with intolerance and hate. Various cultural groups have gone underground and in hiding, all for the sake of being able to come together and be themselves, all while doing in what they perceive to be a safe environment. This is important because we see through some of the witch-hunts that it isn’t safe. One such victim is a young boy named Credence who is on the receiving end of such hate. The abuse he receives at times becomes unbearably painful to watch, and when he befriends the wizard Graves (Colin Farrell) things become so awful for him that a terrible truth is then revealed, which can only have the worst type of consequences imaginable.
The movie is not all dark. The film is called Fantastic Beasts, and the animals we see are plentiful and magical. The role they play is quite surprising as they are more than just catalysts or plot devices to advance the story. At times they are the heart of the story, and between the quality of the acting as well as the visual effects team behind this film we come to accept that these animals are real and have personalities. This is important as they play a part in redeeming Scamander and the mission that he is on. Rowling’s imagination and creativity are firing on all cylinders, as these animals are some of the most amazing ever conceived. They almost make you wish that such animals actually existed. Even towards the end of this movie the actions of one such beast pulls at the heartstrings in such a way that you cease to think that these are CGI constructs. You don’t just accept that they are real. You need for them to be real!
Another beautiful aspect to this film is its cast. There was a time where if a sci-fi or fantasy film could get at least one well named actor that it would help to give the film a sense of artistic credibility. Here we have quite the talented cast, and the fact that these actors wanted to be a part of this film is a testament to the quality of the work itself, and they deliver the goods. In fact, probably the one actor who steals every scene he is in would be Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski. He’s the Non-Maj who accidentally finds himself involved with not just the world of wizards and witches, but his involvement with the magical beasts is so enchanting (Yes, I did use that word deliberately!) that you wish you could be in his place while he helps to feed most of the animals that Scamander has rounded up. Fogler shows such great depth to the character of Jacob. He is a man of passion, and of surprising virtue. He is also quite funny. There are quite a few scenes where he gets to play up the comedy, but he understands just how far to take the joke. It’s never overplayed, but still kept funny enough to actually make the audience laugh quite loudly. Whether he gets to appear in any of the proposed sequels is anyone’s guess, but there is no question that he would be welcomed with open arms by the movie going audience.
This movie does have its drawbacks. For the first half of the movie Redmayne speaks with what I can only describe as “mush mouth.” I can only assume that this is an affect that he is applying as I have heard him speak elsewhere and he’s quite clear and eloquent with his speech. Add that to the near chaotic mayhem presented in more than the first half of the film and almost becomes overload. While the visuals and the beasts are amazing, there is so much happening that it is quite difficult to follow along with the plot, especially with the mush-mouth explanation and exposition going along with each scene. Lines are being spoken both quickly and softly that caused me to miss about 30% of what was being said. With all of that I found myself starting to push away from the film, but when it ceases to be action packed and actually focus on the individuals, the film develops a truly giving and warm heart. I found myself completely pulled in and full suspension of disbelief was achieved, and that’s when the film really resonates with the audience. The story becomes completely believable and the characters are real.
The last comment I need to briefly make is in regards to the music. The composer James Newton Howard has cut his teeth working on a lot of different movies and TV shows, but has never been one to actually create a memorable melody. Instead he quite unabashedly uses a theme from The Polar Express as written by Alan Silvestri and gives it his own orchestration for this film. There is no masking it. It’s clearly Silvestri’s theme, and yet I did not mind because his treatment of the theme was strikingly beautiful and actually made me want to go out and buy the soundtrack for this film (something I haven’t done since The Return of the King).
As I said, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does have its flaws. The first half to two-thirds of this movie made me occasionally laugh, but did not pull me in. It was in the last third, possibly even the last half, of this film that it finally unfolded and became more than what I had hoped for. From the moment that happens this film became one of the most beautiful movies I have seen in a long time. The last third do more than just redeem the entire film. It brought me to tears and made me wish once again that such magic really did exist. I went from being mildly disappointed to overwhelmingly in love with this film, and I will gladly see it a second time.
I give this film 4 out of 5 wands!!!
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