Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

For the second time this year we have been asked to return to JK Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry. However, whereas the stage play was able to fully capitalise on Rowling’s strength for story, world and character in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, poor direction somewhat comprises this cinematic effort.

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The film tells two stories. The first concerns Newt Scamander, a young wizard, and his attempts to reclaim a number of “fantastic beasts” who have escaped his stewardship in the city of New York. He is joined in his attempts to reclaim the beasts by a factory worker, amateur baker and muggle (or no-mag), Jacob Kowalski. The other story concerns a mysterious evil presence rampaging around New York City, despite the best efforts of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA), and unwittingly aided by an anti-witch hate group.

These two stories have just enough of Rowling’s talent for intrigue and mystery to be interesting, but they are deserving of two different films (and considering five sequels to this film have already been announced, they certainly can afford to provide the breathing room). The two intersect and inform each other quite clumsily, culminating in a scene in which Porpentina Goldstein, a witch working for MACUSA but assisting Scamander in his search, says to Scamander “We must capture the rest of your beasts so MACUSA can’t keep scapegoating them!”. You see Scamander is the chief suspect of the crimes perpetrated by the mysterious evil, and so he is drawn into the second story.

This is a contrived connection and ultimately neither is really allowed to flourish. One storyline is resolved by the end of the second act, and the other must capitalise on setups that have been diluted amongst the rest of the action. You’d be forgiven for losing track of Percival Graves’ motivation as we spent most of the film not knowing who he is or how he pertains to the rest of the story.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

However the real problem with the film is the direction and editing. The film awkwardly cuts from one scene to the next. A scene of chaos as Scamander’s bag is opened, unleashing some of the beasts within, is very abruptly cut with a mundane scene of a child playing hopscotch. The cut was so abrupt I expected the chaos to extend into her scene. That is the grammar of film, which when interrupted can be very jarring.

This is most noticeable in the action sequences. Large-scale destruction must unwind slowly and deliberately. If you have a great monster storming down a street, knocking cars aside as if they were nothing and charging through solid stone and iron without slowing, then the actions lose all meaning. The images have no weight to them and there is no emotional impact to the destruction. Fantastic Beasts is unfortunately, for such a frequently charming film, all too often lacking any emotional content.

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Take for instance the opening sequence. Five wizards are seen walking across a dark field, wands drawn, when they are all suddenly wiped out by a wave of menacing light. This sequence is achieved in less than ten seconds of footage. We have no incentive to empathise with these characters. I don’t believe we even see their faces before they meet their fate. What may be an attempt to establish a darker atmosphere and genuine sense of threat is robbed of its effectiveness by the lack of decent pacing. There then follows some very clumsy exposition delivered by a series of newspaper headlines flying at the screen.

This may seem inconsequential, but something important is being missed here. An audience member makes a decision early in a film; the decision to consent. If a film’s opening sequence seduces the audience member then they will suspend their disbelief and invest themselves into the film. If the grammar of the film is clumsy, even subtly so, then they will remain firmly planted in their cinema seat, retaining their disbelief. Once the audience member decides that what they’re watching is a bad film, they will commit to finding further evidence to support their conclusion. Unfortunately, anyone who makes that decision early in Fantastic Beats will find plenty of this evidence. Which is unfortunate, as something is being missed.

The film has plenty of strengths. Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry is as charming as ever, as are the films characters, all ably played by the international cast. The stories, though muddled, are engaging. But be prepared to ignore some very poor transitions and incredibly jarring pacing. A fantastic missed opportunity.

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