“For all the fantastic beasts disrupting the city, the most dangerous one exists within. ‘A beast that has been created in ways which feel sadly familiar’.” – David Yates (Director) in Inside the Magic: The Making of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Christmas brings a sense of magic with it, so it is only appropriate that a film primarily concerned with magic would be released at this time. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is directed by David Yates, known for his work on the Harry Potter film series and The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and written and produced by J.K Rowling, who wrote the original book of this film, and the original Harry Potter books. If anyone could have thought of a more appropriate pair to helm this film, I’d be surprised.
The film mostly orbits around one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magical beast enthusiast and magizoologist (their term, not mine) who comes to New York in the 1920s, a time rife with inner magical conflicts of dangerous wizards and pseudo-racial conflict between non-magics and magics.In the mix then are thrown Tina (played by one of my favourites, Katherine Waterston), a low-level admin person in the American Ministry of Magic, MACUSA, her sister who can read minds called Queenie (Alison Sudol), a “No-Maj” (short for no-magic) who wants to open a bakery called Jacob (Dan Fogler), and they race across the city recovering many escaped “Fantastic Beasts” and much more, meanwhile machinations inside the MACUSA from Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a higher up and a bunch of odd cult members who seem to invoke the Salem witch hunts but also the KKK, headed by the adoptive mother, Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the kids, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith-Wood Blaregrove). Also Jon Voight is in it in a political side plot which is just there.
If that was slightly complex and difficult to wrap your head around, then you experienced some of the similar plot induced disorientation I found watching this. The film whips up a series of spinning plates, and it took me a hell of a lot of concentration to keep up with it, mainly due to its penchant for introducing brand new magic elements almost every five minutes, new beasts or potions or elements, honestly it was a dizzying array of fireworks at points which flew by so fast that key elements were completely forgotten by the time of their eventual use and reveal. The world building to this planned five film franchise was obviously key here, and it’s almost overwhelming amount of information certainly stretched me, so I’m not sure whether my brain is just getting rusty or whether the kid’s watching it are all completely confused. Perhaps both.
The film largely manages to pull off the plate spinning act due to its charm. A lot of children’s films now seem more geared towards a teenage market, and for all the obsession over superheroes, the general lack of magic surrounding these impossible superhumans has never been more apparent when held up against this film. The film certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the beautifully rendered magical beasts, but credit goes to the cast as well who manage to become inhabitants in the world, all with varying degrees of success. The core squad of Newt and co. really complement each other and the world around them, whereas Colin Farrell comes out of this more than a little clunky. It really does exhibit that same spirit which managed to capture the entire globe in the Harry Potter series, which definitely surprised me.
However the film also becomes tonally wild during various points, themes of child abuse and segregation and environmentalism just all emerge and then retreat very quickly, only enhancing the already burgeoning disorientation. It’s not necessarily a giant failing, but the focus on world building forces the direction of the film to jump erratically around, from different themes and tones to such an extent that to this point I still can’t really tell you what the film is about. It’s just a chocolate box, filled to the brim with different treats and different choices, but without presenting anything particularly coherent. It’s texture is so rich and dense, but there are times where its hard to see what’s really important and what’s just set dressing. And the more complex ethical issues certainly become a little more morally confusing (wiping the memories of hundreds of thousands of people as a great thing which doesn’t get questioned at all doesn’t exactly sit well) as the film progresses. Just a kid’s film they will cry, but kids think about things, and kids become adults who think about things. Do we need to look any further than this?
I can’t really give it a hard time for simply having too much going on though, especially when it exhibits a Guillermo Del-Toro level of attention to detail in every aspect of its mise-en-scene. The costumes are extravagant and expertly designed, the sets ooze with atmosphere and an incredibly stylised art deco aesthetic that places it in the realm of the magical, because its far too gorgeous to be the real New York of the 1920s, but nevertheless it becomes a gorgeous visual feast.And its core lays a lot of heart and a clear driving psychological core. Nothing is vague or misunderstood, there’s just so much packed in that it’s difficult to take in one viewing.
Honestly I just have a lot of respect for it, even though it creaks and falls apart in places. They really brought the world to life, and its a great ride, a real creation of magic.It’s just brimming with life, with the power of cinema, strong performances in non-cliched and human characters, gorgeous scenery and a strong emotionally rooted story. It won’t ever put time into the pantheon of CINEMA, but I definitely got wrapped up in the magic in a way only cinema can pull off.
It aspires to a hell of a lot, and while it may not hit every part it wants to, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still be amongst the stars.
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