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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Movie Review: #FantasticBeastsandWhereToFindThem

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a dull, convoluted mess that looks like a magician's apprentice made it.

WARNING: This review contains massive spoilers.

Review by Matt Cummings

Among the best of Hollywood's film franchises, Harry Potter might also be known as one of the least appreciated. What began as a series of stories told by Author JK Rowling to her children turned into an 8-movie bonanza that captured the imaginations of an entire generation of moviegoers. It literally was the magic of a Potter wand capturing lightning in a bottle. Which is why it's so difficult to announce that its prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is such an utter disappointment: it's clunky, poorly-cast, and captures exactly zero of the Harry Potter magic that our nation now sorely needs.

Set 70 years before Harry Potter first picked up a wand, a British wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in 1926 New York ready to deposit a magical beast in Arizona. His suitcase contains a menagerie of creatures including a massive rhino-like beast and several flying reptiles and animals that he's protected from the . When his suitcase is accidentally replaced with a struggling wanna-be baker (Dan Fogler), Scamander must use local help like the disgraced Magical Congress investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her psychic sister (Alison Sudol). But Team Scamander has bigger problems, as a dark wizard terrorist Gellert Grindelwald and an unpredictable force attempt to destroy the City, forcing the No-Maj (humans) are forced to accept that magicians live among them.

Fantastic Beasts exists around two ridiculous premises: that Scamander has lost some exotic animals in New York City and must locate them, and that dark forces are conspiring to end the world of Muggle and Magician (haven't we seen that before). Rowling takes on the duties of Screenwriter for the first time, and it's a total bomb: transitions between Director David Yates' images aren't clear and character development is based more on being affected by what's happening than content to tell each person's tale and how they operate within this universe. That makes for our actors reacting to a lot of manufactured mayhem, some of which works well enough (the sets and costume design are solid) but most of which is obviously CGI (Scamander's wild beasts). But the devastating story problems keep this from becoming passable fare, constantly dragging down any inertia built up by moments of genuine beast joy.

Fantastic Beasts assumes you already know about the world of Potter even though this takes place 70 years before he's born, jumping right in to an X-men type of mistrust by humans. There's no explanation as to why this distrust occurred in the first place, nor is there a conversation to set up this pre-Potter world. While Potter never delved into that either, that would have been a logical place for Fantastic Beasts to begin. But the problems spiral out from there. The reveal that Mller's Credence is in fact the cause of all New York's problems makes no sense, when he's clearly been alive (and not causing danger) for longer than his reported shelf life. There's something silly in assuming that at one moment the character isn't doing anything wrong, and then for no apparent reason begins to act dangerously. But the worst offender is Graves, who is revealed to be none other than Grindenwald himself (sounds a lot like Tom Riddle to me). And since Johnny Depp has already been announced to play Grindenwald in the sequel, his appearance near film's end is not in the least surprising. It's hard to fathom how someone who has existed in this timeline as a Wizard Cop could also be the person that everyone is trying to find, as if he's somehow been able to lead two separate lives but can somehow be based in New York while committing crimes in England.

Fantastic Beasts isn't a total disaster. There's some good physical comedy, including a platypus-looking beast named The Niffler whose love for shiny things leads to several fun scenes. Fogler single-handedly keeps this film from becoming a second-act walkout when his character learns about the hidden world of wizards. His dumbfounded stares and reactive scenes are quite enjoyable, until they get piled on so heavily that any appreciation you might have had for it in the first place is nearly lost. But while the production design is top notch, Redmayne is nearly impossible to understand, choosing strange tics and poses to imbue Scamander with a persona you want to eventually smack. Miller and Ferrell are misused in the extreme, as if Yates and Editor Matt Day had to cut about 10% of the film's already long 133-minute runtime. Everyone here is a caricature of a previous Potter character, thrown into a blender and pour in glasses that look different but taste the same.

Potter apologists - like Hobbit Hobb-nobbers - will look at Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and suggest that this universe is just getting started, that it needs time to flesh out before general audiences can be ready for whatever is in store. That's just an excuse for the huge problems already present here, as the foundation for a supposedly five-film series appears to be built on clay rather than sand. Clunky and weighed down with convoluted storylines and poor performances, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a disappointing sequel in a year filled with them. And just like The Hobbit, if this one doesn't course correct quickly, we'll be looking at either a television future ala Divergent or an outright abandonment of what was a once-beloved franchise.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence and has a runtime of 133 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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