Fantastic Beasts and where to Find Them Review: “Look, Dad, a Deus Ex Machina!”

Hey Everybody! Welcome back to another article from Flickmuncher.com. It’s been quite awhile since my last review. My schedule has been really heavily booked so I haven’t been able to see many of the movies that have come and gone since then. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pick up my schedule going forward but I may not get a lot of consistency until April. That said, I will do my best to get articles out on a more regular basis. With that out of the way, let’s jump into this review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

For those of you who are major fans of the Harry Potter universe—the books and the movies—let me preface this review by stating that my exposure to this world has been pretty minimal. I’ve only seen the movies once before, and I’ve never read the books so I went into this movie as big a Potter-newbie as one could get. So what did I think of this film?

Well, let’s start with the story. Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1927 as a young wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected during his journey abroad as the subject of his book, named, well, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, magical beasts have apparently been banned in America and when a mix-up causes some of Newt’s creatures to escape, he finds himself teaming up with a non-magical (or “Nomaj” as they’re called in the film) aspiring baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and local magic regulation officer, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, to try and track down the beasts before they endanger all of New York City. Meanwhile, the magic government in New York is dealing with a wizard terrorist named Grindelwald group that is trying to expose magic users to the outside world and incite a war between magic and non-magic people, possibly using a Fantastic Beast to do so.

With that story in mind, what did I like about the film? Well, for starters, I really liked Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski. As the only major non-magical character in the film, he brought a heart and relatability to the movie that carried it through some of the more dramatic moments as he saw some of the more bizarre and strange things that J.K. Rowling’s magical world provided. Also, there was a scene with him toward the end of the film that was truly heart-rending to me after seeing everything he had gone through.

Besides Fogler’s performance this movie did a good job of portraying the little details and nuances of this world that it was trying to create, though the politics of said world remain a bit unclear to me. Setting it in the 1920s was also a nice touch as it helps to set the movie apart aesthetically from other movies of a similar character. I’m always a sucker for that era anyway.

Also, the notion of Newt’s suitcase being a Doctor Who-style bigger-on-the-inside menagerie was a fun concept to play with as well and getting to explore that menagerie was as fascinating to witness as you would imagine it would be. The creatures are imaginative and the way they are described legitimately made me want to learn more about them.

So those are the more significant positive points that stood out to me. Hope you enjoyed them because here’s where my Flickmuncher personality comes out and things get much rougher for this movie.

 First, the plot. (Please be aware this section will involve some spoilers) I already gave as quick an overview as I could in my story summary above but even that was a bit of a challenge because this movie seems to be trying to tell two stories that are almost completely unrelated to each other. On the one hand you have Newt and Company’s work to corral the escaped fantastical creatures without endangering the local populace, and on the other you have this shadowy bureaucratic wizard who is searching for yet another child who was prophesied to have great power and could be dangerous to wizards and humans alike. Sidenote: who is coming up with these prophesies? They seriously need to get some lessons on originality.

Anyway, my problem is not that the movie has two stories going on. Plenty of great movies have secondary stories (or subplots as their known in the writing world) but Fantastic Beasts doesn’t seem like it can decide which one takes priority or how they’re even connected and so they end up distracting from each other.

It’s like a child trying to cram two colors of playdough through a hole at the same time, one green, one red. The playdough’ll get through the hole—eventually—but it’ll be neither red nor green. That’s what this movie’s story is like. It has two separate stories that would have been fine individually, but just don’t make a good mix and that falls on the writing. I understand that J.K. Rowling wrote this movie’s screenplay and I know she is considered a master writer by most people but if she gets praised for the good pieces of her work then she’s also responsible for the bad. Also, there’s a “twist” at the end with Colin Farrell’s bad guy that left me scratching my head wondering, “What in the world was that?”

            Of course, a poor story can be forgiven if the characters are interesting and enjoyable and up above I did praise the movie’s portrayal of Jacob Kowalski as one of its significant strong points due to his down-to-earth likeability as a guy whose just trying to open up a bakery. However, none of the other characters matched that level of interest for me and the biggest offender by far, is Newt Scamander. Which is a shame, because the concept for him—a zookeeper wizard who collects rare creatures—is actually very interesting and fraught with possibilities. But the movie never really goes anywhere with those concepts. We know that he fought in the magical version of World War I, and he had a lady love that he broke up with but neither of those things are explored to any depth either, nor do we find out WHY Newt does what he does other than that he wants to protect magical creatures from humans. WHY does he want to protect them? Does he relate more to the animals than his own kind? What made him this way? Was it the war? A traumatic childhood experience? What?

            Compounding this problem is Eddie Redmayne’s casting as Newt which I have to reference because I thought this was a terrible performance. I know that Redmayne won an Oscar last year for The Theory of Everything but he also won a Razzie award that same year for a role in Jupiter Ascending and a lot of that latter movie is on display in his performance here. He plays things so understated, nervous, and mumbling that it’s hard to hear what he’s saying at times. Plus something I noticed towards the end is that he keeps the same neutral quasi-sad expression throughout the entire movie. He only smiles twice, and he never gives an expression denoting fear, anger or any other significant emotion and, I’m sorry, if he want’s me as an audience member to buy that he’s an actual person and not some cardboard protagonist cutout, then he’s got to have the emotions of an actual person.

            Now, the stories and characters of movies might not matter that much to you, so what about the cool visuals. Well, some of the visuals are cool as I mentioned above but they’re smattered throughout a movie that has a very drab, grey color palette and is overall uninteresting to look at—which I could understand if they were trying to visually distinguish the magic world from the real world—but there’s little to no difference between them which just makes what’s happening on screen feel boring and that’s something you should never feel in a fantasy movie like this.

            Finally, the crowning jewel of this tirade is one of my personal pet peeves as a writer and a movie fan. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Status Quo! For those unfamiliar with the term, Status Quo refers to the need for the world to return to the state it was in when the story began, no matter what happened during the story or who was affected by it. In this case, the Wizarding World is secret at the beginning of the movie but outed by the end of the climax, setting up an interesting new world in which Wizards and non-Wizards (and no I will not call them Nomaj’s or Muggles) have to figure out how to coexist together. Sounds fun, right?

Well, instead of that interesting option the writers (cough) J.K. Rowling (cough) choose to just wipe everyone’s memories that the whole thing ever happened and returns the world completely back to the Status Quo, at least until the four sequels that Warner Bros. has planned out for Fantastic Beasts.  Which leads me to ask, is this going to happen after each sequel? Even if it doesn’t, if the writers don’t care about what happened in their movie, why should they expect us to?

Conclusion: Whoo. Well…, now that I’ve gotten the Flickmuncher out of my system and simultaneously ticked off probably every Harry Potter fan who is reading this post, let me say that in spite of all its faults, I don’t hate this film. It may sound like I do but that’s mostly because I see so many places it could have gone but didn’t. I’m not a Potter fan and I will probably never be one but I love movies and I love the places that they can take you. I want to see more inspired visuals, more interesting characters, more important stories. These are what make movies, movies. Which is why it’s so disappointing to me when I see movies that “play it safe” and refuse to take risks and do new things. For those of you who love the books, I understand wanting to see a faithful adaptation of that book you love. But you already have that story in your mind. Don’t imprison a film within its source material. Let it try to be its own thing. And you know what? It might not give you what you wanted, but it might also give you what you didn’t know you wanted. And I look forward to the movie that does that.

Final Score: Rainy Day Rental

So, assuming you don’t plan to kill me for writing this, what did you think of the review? Did you agree or disagree with my analysis? What parts stuck out to you? Let me know all about it on facebook or in the comments below. Thanks and as always, May the Flick be with You!

The Huntsman – Winter’s War: “How are you alive?”

Assessment: Rental Worthy

Hey, Everyone! Welcome to another movie review from FlickMuncher.com! Today we’re going to be looking at another current release that hasn’t been receiving a lot of attention, The Huntsman: Winter’s War. The sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, a modest hit when it came out, this movie was about as anticipated as you can imagine any generic fantasy not named Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter being…which is to say, not at all. So why am I reviewing it then? Because I’m a completely shameless sucker for said generic fantasy movies. So let’s get into it.

WARNING – There will be spoilers in this review. Continue reading at your own risk. Unless you don’t care about spoilers in which case you’ve already ignored this WARNING.

The story of this movie is a little tricky starting off with the first twenty to thirty minutes detailing the backstory of the Huntsmen. Not the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), but Huntsmen, plural. It turns out that back when they were children, they were all kidnapped by the evil Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) to fight her wars and serve as the ultimate soldiers. To make sure that her Huntsmen remain completely loyal to her Freya, get this, completely outlaws love. I don’t know if this just applied to the Huntsmen or to the entire kingdom—which creates a whole host of practical problems—but she does this because of her own backstory where she lost her infant child in a fire and discovered she has ice powers. Oh, and it also turns out that she’s the Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron)’s younger sister. Go figure.

Anyway, it turns out that outlawing love among soldiers where there are both boys and girls is slightly difficult to enforce because our hero falls in love and marries one of his redhead female comrades named Sara (Jessica Chastain). Needless to say, the Ice Queen isn’t very happy about this and so has Sara killed and the Huntsman left for dead in an icy river.

Cut to several years later, after the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, where the Huntsman is asked by Snow White, or rather Prince Charming I guess since Snow White never actually appears, to go and escort the Evil Queen’s magic mirror to this vaguely safe place called Sanctuary. But his past begins to catch up with him as the Ice Queen also wants the mirror and is willing to do anything to get it. With the help of a couple of dwarves, because this exists in the Snow White movie and there have to be dwarves helping out our protagonist, the Huntsman sets off to stop the Ice Queen from using the mirror to take over the kingdom.

Story-wise, this plot isn’t bad. After all its a common thing in fiction and movies to have a sequel show a new villain that has a beef with the hero because of the previous villain. This movie takes that and adds a further connection between the Huntsman and the Ice Queen by having her treat the huntsmen as her surrogate children. That’s an interesting twist and it explains a lot of her motivation and her actions for much of the film.

Where the movie stumbles is in its execution of those elements. Great ideas inhabit every film but if they aren’t presented well then to the audience, its as if they never existed. Freya’s backstory of losing her child and it driving her mad is an interesting, if often-used, idea. But when you introduce people to parts of a character is as important as what it is you’re introducing them to. Instead of introducing the audience to Freya’s character slowly and allowing us to see what makes her who she is, the movie gives it to us in one long bout of exposition. I’ll get to the exposition in a minute, but that’s such a waste of a great idea that was never followed through on.

The same goes for the idea of the Mirror itself being possessed somehow and for the Huntsman and his wife, Sara. If you saw the first movie you already know that his wife was supposedly dead and he was a man without a country, so to speak. That could have made his remembering her and her subsequent return from the dead very compelling drama. But instead they give us exposition about the two of them at the beginning so that her return isn’t the least bit surprising or interesting, to us as the audience because we already know their history and what separated them. It’s just poor execution on what could have been some very interesting ideas.

In addition to this it adds in Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen Ravenna at the end as the movie’s “final boss”. I love Charlize Theron’s work and I’ll be singing her praises here soon but her presence in the story completely undercuts Freya as the movie’s villain. Its a simple unspoken logic that if you have a villain in one movie, then the sequel should have a villain that is equally if not more dangerous for the hero to overcome. This takes that in the completely wrong direction. Freya goes from first string baddie to second fiddle in the course of a few minutes after spending the majority as the main antagonist for our heroes. That’s a huge problem when you’re trying to provide a major challenge for our heroes.

I mentioned the exposition at the beginning because its a huge part of what I don’t like about this movie. Liam Neeson plays the role of the Narrator in this section and it sounds like he’s narrating a segment on the Conspiracy Show Channel That Used To Be About History—or is that the actual History Channel? At any rate, the exposition in this movie is utterly awful. It tells us things that we could have easily learned just by seeing these characters interact together and speaks to lazy or rushed writing. That is one of the worst plagues in all of Hollywood and one of my personal pet peeves. SHOW, DON’T TELL!

This movie does deserve some credit though. Some of the landscapes, creatures, and places that are visited in it are dripping with color and imagination even though they are CGI. The phrase “its too CGI” is tossed around a lot but in a day and age when filmmakers use CGI that goes by so fast you barely see it, or hardly use color at all, I found these moments both welcome and refreshing.

The cast should be applauded as well given what they have to work with in this movie. I mentioned Charlize Theron and she’s allowed to be deliciously evil once again in the role of Ravenna, chewing scenery left and right.

Chris Hemsworth is also great as the titular Huntsman. He has a huge amount of confidence and charm to him that makes him the sort of hero that you could see yourself following even if you didn’t know what his plan was. It’s that old-school Errol Flynn-like feel to his performances that makes me wish I could see him in better films. Maybe he should consider getting a new agent.

Emily Blunt brings the amount of grace and hardness that one would expect an actress of her caliber would bring to a character like the Ice Queen but I was disappointed that she didn’t get a lot of moments to stretch her acting legs.

Then there are the Dwarves. These guys are by far the highlight of this entire movie for me. I was laughing regularly whenever they were on screen. The jokes they brought to the table were consistently funny and helped bring a lot of heart and levity to a movie that could’ve easily become too grim to be taken seriously. I could watch a movie of just Chris Hemsworth and those Dwarves sitting around a table talking for two hours. That’s how good they are.

Oddly enough the one part of the cast that doesn’t really stand out to me is Jessica Chastain as Sara. There’s nothing particularly wrong with her performance. It’s just she doesn’t bring anything special to that role. It’s…forgettable. Which is probably the worst thing anyone can say about any performance.

Conclusion:

At one point in the movie one character says to another, “How are you alive?” My sister, who I went to see this movie with, leaned over to me and said sarcastically “I think that’s the prevailing question.” I think a lot of people will agree with her, not just about what’s in the movie but about the movie itself.

How is it alive? As I said before, Snow White and the Huntsman was a modest success but it wasn’t a blockbuster. The worst thing about this movie is that there wasn’t really much need for it to be made.

That being said however, I do like a lot of the elements that were put into this film. It’s well done technically and a lot people worked really hard to put it together. Its no Lord of the Rings but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained by it which is more than I can say for some other fantasy movies I’ve seen. And really, that’s what a movie is supposed to do. Some films do it better than others but for what I paid for, I don’t regret buying a ticket to this one. If you see it in a rental box sometime, I’d check it out.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below or tell me on twitter @Lightwielder524. In the meantime, have a great week and May the Flick be with You!

%d bloggers like this: