Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

Five years ago signaled the end of an era for me and I was honestly sad. The final Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, was released in theaters and that meant no more Harry Potter books or movies to look forward to. This universe had been a huge part of my life during grade school and into college as I first dove into this magical world when I was in sixth grade, which was shortly after the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. When I was driving home from The Deathly Hallows - Part 2, I got really emotional. The Harry Potter universe had been so close to my heart, that it was a hard thing to accept. Little did I know at the time that that wasn't the end. As a good friend of mine always says, never believe Hollywood when they say something is the final chapter, especially if it's a lucrative franchise. Thus is the case here. Hollywood has found a way to continue the Harry Potter universe and it is in the form of Newt Scamander, the author of the Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, sending us to 1920's New York. Honestly that wouldn't have been my first choice, but apparently J.K. Rowling grew fondly of this character as she was writing her main series, so in J.K. Rowling we trust! Right?

Actually if I'm being truthful, Fantastic Beasts isn't our first means of returning to this universe since the end of the movies. Not counting all the things Rowling has done with Pottermore and social media, we first returned this summer as Rowling co-wrote a play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, set about 20 years after The Deathly Hallows, following Harry's kids at Hogwarts. I can't speak for the actual play itself, but that script that was released in book form was an absolute abomination. I absolutely hate that story with a fiery passion greater than most stories I've ever read or watched. If you care to know why, I just linked my review of it for you to read. Go click that title a few lines back. But beware, it's quite possibly the longest blog post I've written. I like to pretend that's non-canonical and/or was just a bad dream, but it exists and thus has to be Rowling's first huge stain when it comes to her and this universe. Given that she wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, I was really hoping it wouldn't be two two missteps in row this year. But I was kinda nervous because the trailers did nothing for me. The teasers focused solely on our return to this universe and the full trailer focused on our characters chasing creatures in New York. I was hoping there was more to this movie that they weren't showing us, because if it was just chasing creatures, that would be lame.

Thankfully my fears were put at ease right from the opening scene as we started with newspaper clippings about Gellert Grindelwald, the second most powerful dark wizard in history behind only Voldemort. Grindelwald was a childhood friend of Dumbledore until the two became enemies following a duel between the two and Dumbledore's brother Aberforth, which ended up killing Dumbledore's sister Ariana. As we learn in the books, Grindelwald was expelled from Durmstrang at age 16 due to unhealthy experiments with the dark arts and was eventually defeated in a duel by Dumbledore in 1945, spending the rest of his life in prison, where he was killed by Voldemort during the events of The Deathly Hallows. If this is the story we're diving into, I'm in! Grindelwald doesn't really play a role in this movie, he's more of a tease for later movies, but that immediately made me excited for this franchise, which was announced to be five movies. At first when I heard this was going to be five movies, I was worried. Shouldn't we see how the first movie does before planning more? That seems like counting your chickens before they hatch. Risky move. After seeing the movie, I'm totally down for five movies in this franchise. Bring it on!

It was also officially announced that Grindelwald will be played by Johnny Depp in future movies, a decision I approve of. Despite the bad reputation Depp has been given, I think he's a phenomenal actor that can do a lot of different types of roles. If you don't think Depp could pull off dark, creepy and evil, go watch the movie Black Mass and get back to me on that. But I suppose we'll talk more about Depp as Grindelwald when he actually shows up in this franchise. As far as what we can talk about in this specific movie, well that's a little tricky. As I mentioned before, the trailers gave us nothing. All it teased was an adventure chasing various creatures around New York. But thankfully that is NOT was this movie is about. Yes that does happen quite a bit. But that's more of a means to an end rather than the main focus. This is not a movie about how Scamander wrote his textbook. This is a movie about Scamander getting caught up in a whole storm of other crap after a few of his creatures escape his magical briefcase. Thus we have to chase down these creatures AND deal with all this other stuff. The other stuff is much more interesting that the creature stuff, but I don't really want to talk much about it because the advertising left it a complete mystery.

What I will say is that this movie did remind me a lot of The Sorcerer's Stone. That movie had the grand task of setting up the Harry Potter universe with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all of that fun jazz and it did a great job. There was a main story in The Sorcerer's Stone involving Snape and Quirrell that was exciting, but the main purpose of The Sorcerer's Stone was setting the stage and after that was properly set up, we were able to build on that universe and tell many great stories. The Sorcerer's Stone wasn't my favorite book or movie, but I do think it's really good as it successfully sets up this universe and does have a good enough story to go along with it. Fantastic Beasts follows a similar formula. Without diving into super deep specifics, Fantastic Beasts does have a main story that involves Ezra Miller and Collin Farrell's characters that's exciting, and that's as far as I will go in regards to that, but the main point was to set up this new universe in the Harry Potter world and they do a great job. We learn about who Newt Scamander is and we follow him as he gets caught up in this mess over in the United States, which has a whole different set of rules than our typical home place of England, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities.

Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander and he does a fantastic job. We learn that Newt Scamander is a complex character with a unique background, which I think makes him a great protagonist. He's not your typical flawless perfect hero and unlike Harry Potter, he's not seen by others as a "promised savior" of sorts. Not everyone likes him. On top of that, he has this slightly awkward, anti-social vibe to him where he'd rather spend time with his creatures than other people. Eddie Redmayne pulls this off perfectly. The female counterpart in this story is a girl by the name of Tina played by Katherine Waterston and she's equally as complex and the chemistry that her and Redmayne with their complicated relationship and introduction is great. Rounding out our trio in this movie is a muggle, or no-maj as they call them in the U.S., by the name of Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, who literally is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets sucked into this adventure. Man is he fantastic! Such a fun character, providing great comic relief, but also a solid amount of emotion. There are times where the movie wanders, especially in the first hour or so. All the creatures in this are beautiful and fascinating, but there is a huge portion of the movie where we probably spend a little too much time with all the creatures and hunting them down, but things pick up in the end.

Overall I went into this movie a little skeptic. I was cautiously optimistic. I wanted our next big chapter in the Harry Potter universe to be as equally magic as our main series and after being stabbed in the heart by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was slightly nervous. Thankfully they pulled it off! I think this is a great introductory chapter to what I feel is going to be a wild and fun ride. I also enjoy the aspect that there are no preconceived notions of what will happen. We know the overall fate of Grindelwald, but that's about it. No comparing to any books or complaining that they didn't perfectly follow every detail to what we all had in our heads. We have a completely empty slate with a lot of great possibilities and many potential directions we can go and I'm excited to be a part of this journey. Just like with The Sorcerer's Stone, I think the future potential is greater than our introductory chapter, but also like with The Sorcerer's Stone I think this is a good movie in it's own right. I saw this in a packed theater opening night full of Harry Potter fans like myself who gave this a loud standing ovation when the credits. If you're a fan of Harry Potter, that's a dang good sign. It's possible that I didn't enjoy it quite as much as others in the theater with me, but I still applauded along with them as I was very pleased. I am going to give Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them an 8/10.

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