Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them": one-paragraph review

Directed by David Yates (who directed the final four Harry Potter films) and starring Eddie Redmayne, 2016's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is a spinoff movie that, like "Rogue One," does much to expand a fictional cinematic universe. The story takes place in Prohibition-era New York, with British magizoologist (JK Rowling's term for a cryptozoologist) Newt Scamander coming to Ellis Island, magical suitcase in hand, with the intention of releasing one of his stored creatures in Arizona. Mayhem ensues when some creatures escape from Scamander's suitcase, and this occurs at a time when Muggle New Yorkers—called "No-Maj"es (no magic) in Yankee parlance—are becoming increasingly aware of the presence of witches and wizards and supernatural powers among them. Scamander's misadventures land him with aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and recently demoted MACUSA Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston at her most winsome).* Meanwhile, a group of "New Salemers," fundamentalist witch-hunters led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton in yet another creepy role) is doing what it can to hunt down witchcraft. One MACUSA director, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell in fine form), suspects that one of Barebones's adopted children is possessed by a powerful Obscurus, a malevolent force that manifests itself in magical folk who try to suppress their magical potential to pass for normal. Graves has secretly enlisted the help of another of Barebones's adoptees, Credence (Ezra Miller), to find the possessed child. Most children who develop an Obscurus die before the age of ten; Graves is looking to find an Obscurus and weaponize it—mainly because Graves is not who he says he is. In a side subplot, Kowalski is wowed by his exposure to Scamander's magical world but is even more wowed by Goldstein's sultry younger sister Queenie, who is also attracted to Kowalski. In the backdrop of all this action, the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald has disappeared from Europe and has not resurfaced. "Fantastic Beasts" looks and feels consistent with the Potterverse of the previous eight movies, mainly thanks to Yates's capable direction and familiar style. The plot is sufficiently intricate to keep adults interested, and I imagine the creature effects will entertain kids. My problem, though, was that the special effects, which were fairly bog-standard CGI, tended to take me out of the film (the lone exception was Ron Perlman's hilarious bit part: the physically huge Perlman plays a stumpy, deep-voiced goblin running a magical speakeasy). The movie's resolution also felt like a combination of the endings of the 1970s movies "Superman" and "Superman II"; watch "Fantastic Beasts," and you'll know what I mean. Dan Fogler proved to be a revelation for me, though: I knew him mostly as the guy who did a running Sam Kinison impression in "Good Luck Chuck," but he turned out to be a talented, emotional actor who gets what is arguably the movie's most touching scene. The film's various plot strands aren't always tightly intertwined, but somehow, the story coheres better than it has any right to. It's too bad the special effects ended up being such a turn-off for me; had they been more understated, I'd have wanted to recommend this film more strongly. That said, you won't be bored. Just try not to think too hard about the illogicality of magic, e.g., why Scamander arrived in New York by boat and not via magical teleportation (a.k.a. Apparition).

*"MACUSA" stands for "Magical Congress of the United States of America," the US's version of the British Ministry of Magic.

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