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Review: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

In troubling times like these, what better world to escape to than one of the magical and beloved Harry Potter series. Though not a direct prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, exists in a time where Dumbledore, Hogwarts and the villainous Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) are famous in the magic community. While the movie deals with many of the same themes as the original series, the first of what could end up being a five film franchise, starts off somewhat unsure of itself. The movie relies heavily on physical comedy, heavy destruction battles and cartoonish CGI creatures that look out of place in the context of the Potter world. The cast of characters aren’t given enough exposition to allow viewers to develop the attachment they may have previously had with Ron, Hermione and Hagrid, and the many moments in the overly long, 2-hour and thirteen minute film are inconsequential or uninteresting.

The story follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a research and author on the subject of magical, mysterious and maligned creatures. On an expedition to 1926 New York City in search of beasts to document for his book, he quite literally stumbles into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a non-magic man with ambitions of being a baker. Scamander’s interaction with the non-magic man leads him into trouble with the no-nonsense Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently fired magical government employee. The trio later meets Goldstein’s sister, the flirty, quirky and clever Quinne (Alison Sudol), who comes to rescue them from the misguided group of American magicians lead by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). 

The movie wastes no time jumping into the beast hunting, which alternates between A and B plot throughout the film. Beasts spends quite a bit of time talking about past and potentially future conflicts between the wizarding world and the non-magic humans, but doesn’t justify why. Characters with strong anti-magic or anti-non magic feelings aren’t given enough exposition to justify why they are in the movie to begin with, and the interesting notion of a war between evil magic users and national governments seem to be punted to the next movie, which just serves to muddle the plot of this film. That’s a shame, considering the recent election in our country and divisions amongst our populus being top news stories. The movie feels like it’s speaking to our current political climate, even though it was written before Trump became the nominee, yet doesn’t really act on any of the more serious or nuanced ideas that are tossed around.

One thing the Potter movies always had were rivalries and battles that fans truly could get lost in. Enter Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the manipulative, power hungry antagonist that fans of the Potter movies have come to know well. He is unfortunately much more of a one-dimensional villain than most of the ones from the books. Farrell is a superb actor, but isn’t given dialogue or scenes that would make him either sympathetic or strongly detestable.

The character of Porpentina has a strong inclination to follow rules, like Hermione did in the Potter films, but lacks the charm, instant connection to other characters and meaningful exposition that Hermione had in spades. Kowalski also has characteristics of previous characters from the franchise, especially Ron Weasly. Though he is there mostly for comic relief, his dedication to Scamander and Queenie is legitimately very sweet, reminiscent of the friendships that Ron had with some in the Hogwarts group in the Potter series.

The crux of the movie centers around Scamander’s love of magical creatures, searching for them, caring for them and often times running away from them. There are several points in the film where the sole purpose of the scene is to show off the creatures, and that’s simply not a worthwhile or rewarding viewing experience. The movie suffers from many of the same issues that The Hobbit movies suffered from. Compared to the Potter movies that preceded Beasts, many of the potentially dramatic scenes are too often silly and over-the-top, relying on CGI that is so colorful and so clearly animated that it pulls you out of the story. This feels like Harry Potter for kids, despite some of the complexities in regards to the plot and themes.

Fans of Potter may not feel like this movie has quite the magic of the original series, but if nothing else this movie sets up a potentially very interesting set of stories. The movie struggles to find its identity, in both its storytelling and some of its characters, but Redmayne does an excellent job at playing the inquisitive, awkward and powerful Scamander. The premise of a man hunting dangerous and powerful creatures is a solid one, but the reliance on overdone CGI and comedy get in the way of some potentially cool moments. There might not be enough reason to fully invest in him yet, but J.K. Rowling and longtime Potter director David Yates have given fans and critics alike reason to maintain hope. If you’re looking for an escape from our world and into a more fantastical one, or just a fan of the series, this movie will do just fine.

Grade: C+

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