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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Movie Review

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) movie poster Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Theatrical Release: November 18, 2016 / Running Time: 133 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: David Yates / Writers: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterson (Porpentina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw, Sr.), Josh Cowdery (Senator Henry Shaw, Jr.), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw), Carmen Ejogo (Seraphina Picquery), Gemma Chan (Madam Ya Zhou), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Zoë Kravitz (Lestrange), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindewald)

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Everyone knows that five years ago, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 ended an epic era in the world of fantasy cinema. But many a blockbuster franchise has ended -- Star Wars,
Batman, Spider-Man, the Middle-earth saga-- only to be revived, renewed, rebooted. You'd be a fool to believe that eight movies over the course of ten years satisfied the public's demand for Harry Potter. So now, we get more. Not of Harry and friends, but of the magical universe that they inhabited from childhood to the brink of adulthood.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them launches a spin-off franchise that is planned to incorporate at least five films. Unlike the Potter series, these ones will not be based on bestselling novels, instead relying upon original screenplays, the first of which at least is written by J.K. Rowling herself and loosely based on one of Harry's Hogwarts "textbooks" that she penned largely for the charity Comic Relief back in 2001 as Newt Scamander.

Played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, Newt is the protagonist of this film. A young British wizard who was expelled from Hogwarts, Newt arrives in New York City in 1926 with a briefcase holding some of the eponymous beasts. After an encounter at the bank, in which some of the creatures escape and make mischief, Newt accidentally swaps briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a working class No-Maj (that's American speak for "muggle") who is trying to get a loan to open a bakery but lacks the collateral.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) stop to admire a fantastic beast known as a Bowtruckle.

The incident at the bank puts Newt in the custody of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a low-ranking office witch from MACUSA, the agency that monitors and polices the use of magic in the States. Newt is deemed no serious threat by MACUSA, whose attentions are on more pressing matters. But he and his briefcase of extraordinary creatures eventually turn up on the radar of MACUSA director of security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and president Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), who have been preoccupied with an extremist society.

Though it is a period film set in 1920s New York, Fantastic Beasts unmistakably gets its DNA from the Potter series. Like the last four of those, it is directed by David Yates. Like all eight, it is produced by David Heyman. It is very much as if Warner has discovered a new source to produce global sensations in the vein of their most lucrative franchise. They've skipped having them published in book form and develop fan followings, which results in a narrative with a greater capacity to surprise. But it's all done with not only a blessing but heavy creative involvement by Rowling. And it's not as if Potter fans aren't plenty aware of this and interested in how it will compare to the adaptations they love but not as much as the books themselves.

There are a few clear links to the Potter stories, most explicitly a pregnant pause as Graves mentions that Newt's expulsion was contested by Albus Dumbledore. The moment practically calls for Farrell to look directly at the camera, nod, and wink. But most of Fantastic is its own original thing that will try to win over viewers who haven't already devoted days or weeks to going on this journey in hardcover or paperback form.

Two-toned MACUSA director of security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who is not what he appears to be, pursues Credence in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."

Even if like me, you've never read the Potter books, it was impossible not to recognize their existence and be aware that they contained things that could or would never be translated to film. Likewise, you can tell that Fantastic Beasts does not have that same sturdy literary foundation requiring hints to bigger things there are no time for.
Rowling is still creating a universe that is rich for film, but one without the complexity and depth of her name-making empire. Still, there are similar themes and thrills plus some added maturity from having a primarily adult cast. Those who grew up on Potter need not grow out of its magic, particularly as presented here.

Of course, Fantastic Beasts cannot only be judged as an original Rowling creation, but as a tentpole film perfectly timed for the busy holiday movie season. It certainly meets the technical demands of that form, its $180 million production budget allowing for grand canvases, ambitious visuals, and a multitude of state-of-the-art effects. This is a capital-M Movie, even with an international cast that has all been seasoned to some degree in acclaimed films. Most Potterheads will probably refuse to give this spin-off the same credit of the book and film series they love. Those with more casual appreciation for that franchise should be able to embrace this as something more stimulating and entertaining than your typical big budget popcorn movie. If you expect a significantly better version of Peter Jackson's King Kong rather than a ninth Harry Potter movie, you should not come away disappointed.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Doctor Strange • Rules Don't Apply • Moana • Bleed for This • Manchester by the Sea • Nocturnal Animals • Loving
Directed by David Yates: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 • The Legend of Tarzan
Adapted from J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire • The Casual Vacancy

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Reviewed November 18, 2016.

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