Friday, 25 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Film Review)

It's hard not to groan when a franchise is dragged out. When it comes to a near perfect ending, totally concluding and wrapping up events, to see it stretched out can be torturous to say the least. Forcing out new sequels or extensions can easily drive a franchise into the infamous "cash cow" status which is so derided these days. However, once in a while this can actually prove to be a move for the better. Especially when it comes to adapting old worlds for new mediums.

While the Harry Potter saga itself might be praised and lauded about the land, the truth is that it was often its own worst enemy. Oh it had plenty of hits, a great ensemble of actors and a truly stunning final two films, but as an adaptation they often failed to live up to the grandeur of the books or even capture what made those stories great to begin with. As such, this is oddly a situation where the source material was actually holding the films back. With total sincerity, there's no denying that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is quite simply the best Harry Potter production to date.

Rather than following the source book (and in-universe textbook) which helped to flesh out the magical ecosystem of the world, the film instead takes a different route. It's less about the book itself and more partially about how it was written, with things going horribly wrong for Newt Scamander's magical suitcase. While that might be a bit scant as descriptions go, this is honestly one of the films you should walk into without knowing too much about the core plot itself. The only thing worth adding is that, while this is intended to help kick-start a new film series, it can easily be taken in its own right as a single production. Well, save for one tail end scene at any rate.

With Director David Yates returning to helm this new outing, many of of his old traits are back in full force. Everything is slightest twisted about in an oddly whimsical way, there's always a slightly discordant element to the camerawork, and there are few rules in how magic itself works. It's a very style over substance approach to things, It carries the feeling of cinematically shooting from the hip but, unlike a few other laissez-faire directors, he backs this up with enough talent and emotion to pull it through. Sure, you might end up with whole scenes which break the basic rules of magic for the universe, or one which seem to exist purely to show off the artistic direction, but these pass quickly. They don't take up the entire film, and between them you end up with whole sequences resplendent in the wonder of the universe itself and or enough sheer excitement to keep you entertained.

The story itself is fairly direct to say the least, all but pulling a Dredd in saying "this is point A, this is point B" with a few bumps along the way. While there's certainly a bit more too it than that admittedly, it's a story which doesn't try to bog itself down with two dozen sub-plots or running themes. When it does stop, it's usually to help show a bit more of the universe itself, such as how magic is handled in America or the nature of these beasts. Often these are managed about the core plot itself itself, and its laid-back - almost flippant - general direction allows it to get away with this. It's almost as if whole sections of the script were just general notes passed about to the actors, and Yates  said "mention this stuff, do these bits, but otherwise have fun and show off." Honestly, it pays off for the better, allowing it to focus upon the here and now over dealing with lengthy backstories.

The beasts themselves and the artistic designs are expectedly outstanding, managing to nail that sweet spot halfway between Discworld and Middle-Earth in concept. It's that odd blend where it can pull of an insane level of whimsy but still switch back to terrifyingly magnificent at a moment's notice without breaking anything; and while the CGI itself is unfortunately sub-par, it's not so bad that it wrecks the entire experience. So long as you don't pay attention to their eyes, it's just about passable rather than remaining blatantly obvious they're playing with thin air. The true moments where it does shine though are when it delves into the more practical effects, giving the actors more to work with and blending far better with the general going's on. While these certainly don't offer the best money shots (AKA big explosive trailer pieces) they tend to be the most atmospheric and immersive of all the scenes. 

The same really goes for the casting choices, all of who remain strong despite a few fitting the old Harry Potter positions with a few general changes. You still have the outsider, the hard working comedic relief and the overachiever, but the context behind their roles has changed, as has their attitude. The outsider in this case is split across two characters, while the overachiever is actually losing out a great deal of the time rather than eclipsing everyone else. What's more, the audience surrogate is not the protagonist this time but a supporting character, who stumbles upon magic by accident. It definitely pays off for the better here, producing (heretical as it might sound) more engaging protagonists from the start. Thus allowing them to start strong rather than needing a few books to really get going, or explaining away too much of the world.

While Eddie Redmayne might be channeling a little too much of the Eleventh Doctor into his role as Newt, the man's innate charm and enthusiasm pulls through. He provides a fantastic balance between a fool, a a socially awkward bohemian and an adventuring genius; one who manages to be insanely talented and capable without ever pushing into the unstoppable territory. 
Equally, while the muggle worker Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, might have drifted too far into film-Ron Weasley's greatest failings, the humour is spot on. Better yet, he's given a few more glory moments than expected to balance this out, and the fish-out-of-water element he provides is far more effective than Harry's own first outings. There's a real sense of amazement to what he finds, but the fact he has to force his way through terrifying insanity first helps nail it. 

This leaves Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein, the "Hermione" of the group. Talented, brilliant and hard working, but whereas the past franchise had this unfortunate habit of overdoing Hermione's capabilities, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does a better job of balancing out her skills. She does fail several times to accomplish her goals, and there's more of a struggle to actually achieve personal victories. As such, even though there's an antagonistic start between her and Newt, Waterson's acting talent and drive means there's still reasons to root for her.

However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does still have a few major no-nos and distinct face-palming moments despite its strengths. At times it can be equal parts overly predictable and infuriatingly cliche, especially in regards to the moment which kicks off the action. The suitcase is effectively unmarked and there's a busy luggage scene at one point, so guess what happens. What's more, at many points it does recycle many ideas from the main Harry Potter films, especially the introductory segments. The big moving newspaper shows up once again and it's sadly more than a little overdone by this point. The same goes for a few shots and big moments, all of which feel far too much like prior Potter films in visual settings and styling. It doesn't kill the atmosphere, but it does hold the film back from making a truly fresh start in the same world when it keeps reminding you of past outings.

Another aspect which does unfortunately complicate things is the fact that the film tries to juggle between two stories at once, despite the simple premise. This often seemed to be needlessly over-complicating things, especially given how rarely they actually interconnected. Each could have been a good film to itself, but it often seemed like it was being somewhat hindered by the presence of a second story, cutting away from its core scenes. It's less Empire Strikes Back in terms of handling twin narratives, and more Matrix Revolutions at times, just to emphasize how distant these can be.

For all the fun the film offers, there were plenty of times where the direction simply did not to respect the intelligence of its audience. While it did not go into the expected exposition heavy sequences, often the camera lingered on what was supposed to be a subtle hint or visual suggestion. This is especially problematic when it comes to Colin Farrell as Graves, where you have a man pulling off a stunning performance but the film gives away the big twist over and over again. The same goes with some of the secondary characters as well, where the audiences is given such unsubtle hints as to what's going to happen that you're at least one step ahead of the film's plot. 

This is hardly a perfect film, but despite that it still manages to set a high benchmark for Harry Potter films on the whole. It's hard to think of a more engaging fantasy film since Pirates of the Caribbean which has struck that same mix of simplicity, humour, darkness and brilliance; all while managing to offer subtle hints of things to come. Even if you're not a big time fan of this series, or if the recent Cursed Child atrocity left a bitter taste in your mouth, give this one a shot. 

Plus, hey, if none that gets your attention, name another film which offers Ron Perlman playing a New York goblin gangster.

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