Film review by Jason Day of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, from the book by J.K. Rowling, starring Eddie Redmayne and featuring Colin Farrell.
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During a visit to New York, wizard Newton Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is researching for a book about the amazing and fantastical creatures that abound in the magic world, accidentally lets some of them out. Accompanied by the non-magical Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and sister witches Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) he sets out to retrieve them. But dark forces are at work, as the Big Apple is chewed up by a mysterious and incredibly powerful creature linked to the home of the vehemently anti-witch Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). Her son Credence (Ezra Miller) and daughter Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove) hold the key to its identity; dark wizard Graves (Colin Farrell) will stop at nothing to find it and harness its power for his own means.
Neat crap is always preferable over messy crap.
(And with apologies for the extended agricultural simile. New job, new words, new influences, long story, another time).
Author J.K. Rowling – what else is left to say about the authorial phenomenon, whose collective novels about the magic world have shifted an estimated 450 million copies worldwide?
Phenomenon is probably the most apt description, but with the Harry Potter field left creatively barren after overuse for so many years, where could Jo go next?
Fortunately fantasy has a large landscape of other fields so, by sowing the seeds of Hogwarts into one next door, Rowling has smartly left herself with a few more furrows to plough and look back in time on her universe, when Master Potter was a mere glint in a warlock’s eye.
Whether this crop results in as healthy a harvest as the Potter one depends on whether you are an aficionado of Rowling’s books and films. I am not, finding her work florid, ponderous and too earnest, but this is a personal thing (and I have written before about not being able to fully immerse myself in other worlds or children’s films).
This film does not change my opinion one inch. The problem I have with the Harry Potter films and fantasy universe movies in general is the ladling on of detail, reducing story, character and motivation to veritable footnotes, supplementing what (for me, at least) are the more important components of ‘storytelling’, for the the tiny ‘bits and bobs’ of the alien world.
Its a personal thing though; for me these are irritating diversions, clutter or ‘stuff’. For many others, its those small things that contribute to rounded, fully formed plot, people and places and make such films so immersive and enjoyable.
Now, I love films that gets my brain engaged and challenges me, that use the tools and language of cinema to make me see things differently. I also like cinema that can transport me to other times, places and, yes, even other worlds.
But in the process I don’t like films that require me to remember an encyclopaedic tick-list of nonsense, names and events or, as I summarise all of it, crap. Again, this is purely how I see such things and presume I am in the minority. For what I call crap, another few hundred thousand will see as wondrous, imaginative and spectacular elements.
I also don’t mind films that are crap or have crap in them (I’d be an unhappy film critic otherwise!), but keep the crap balanced. Don’t stuff the film to the ceiling with crap. Neat crap is always preferable over messy crap.
(I must note too, I cannot speak as to the quality of the books on which these films are based. I’ve never read them and have never desired to after a friend read from the first Harry Potter one evening. Her reading skills are excellent, but I found myself falling asleep before the second chapter was finished, something the first two Potter films managed to replicate with ease. I did, however, like the later, confident, more adult Harry Potter films, growing up as the trio of lead characters did).
I also appreciate that fantasy literature is a generational thing. Were I eight years old again, I might very well lap up her work as I did 30 years ago with Roald Dahl’s. I might also issue a kiddie fatwah against anyone who dared typed or speak what I just have.
On to the relative merits of this as a film then, and it is certainly a slickly made piece. The period reproduction of 1920’s New York is of exceptional quality. It’s only with the kind of budget that a movie such as this can generate (an alchemically astronomical $160m) that a production team are able to conjure up such depth with sets, costumes, hair and makeup. And it goes without saying that the effects are something to behold (although I found the destruction and subsequent rebuilding of New York more impressive than the magical menagerie).
Redmayne, with a hunched over gait and difficulty making eye contact, plays the benign but friendless Scamander with a light, balletic grace. Even when he starts engaging in a mating dance with a horny ‘Erumpent’ (think rhinoceros with a frigate bird’s wattle on its head), he is good, crowd-pleasing fun.
I love how Redmayne is able to utilise these kinetic subtleties so well: his head angled down on side, he swiftly looks up at there person he is talking to and then, with subtlety, back to the ground, angled down again on one side, without missing a beat of his dialogue.
But the supporting cast offer juicier performances, in particular the astonishing Miller whose intense, penetrating turn, burning with post-teenage anger as an abused boy, completely captures the type of character Rowling is able to nail in her writing with such authentic precision. He acts like he is possessed, dribble falling from his mouth as Farrell (a seductive, Mephistopheles father figure) manipulates his adolescent affection, later fitting wildly. Despite this physicality, he never slips into pantomime; its in the eyes. Those eyes that chilled in We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) could stop the ‘Erumpent’ dead in its tracks.
Although essentially a growing-up child’s type of film, there are enough subversive adult themes worked in here (Sudol’s tight-fitting skirt and lingerie flying around her apartment; a sexy elvish cabaret singer and Morton’s constant physical abuse of her children) to give this a more adult feel than a Harry Potter film.
With four further films in this series already announced, it will be interesting to see if Rowling and the production team push the plough just that bit deeper and further and birth more mature Fantastic Beasts, as happened with the later Harry Potters.
For the official trailer, see the official website.
Cast & credits
Director: David Yates. 133mins. Heyday Films/Warner Bros. (12a).
Producers: David Heyman, Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling, Lionel Wigram.
Writer: J.K. Rowling.
Camera: Philippe Rousselot.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Sets: Stuart Craig, James Hamdige.
Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, Gemma Chan, Zoe Kravitz, Ron Perlman.