Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Review by Andrea Carnevali
The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.
With the third instalment only days away, I had sudden realisation that not only I could not remember a single frame of the first film, but I have never actually seen the second either.
And so the decision to devote the next five hours of my life to catching up with the franchise (dragging the poor unsuspecting family along for the ride too) came quite naturally.
Before I start, I should probably state my credentials. I have read all the Harry Potter books (some of them multiple times) I’ve seen all the films (both on the big screen and on TV), I saw the play in West End, I’ve built all the possible Harry Potter LEGO sets, I have the T-shirts (literally… in fact more than one), I can pretty much kick anyone’s butt playing all the various Wizarding Trivia Games out there and now I am raising a son who is beginning to know more than I do (except that he only got as far as book five and film four, so I’m still winning).
All this to say that, on paper at least, I’m what could be described as the perfect target audience for this. And yet, the film somehow had managed to completely alienate me and made me turn away from the rest of the franchise.
Watching again it today (well, I say “again” but it was pretty much like I’d never seen it before), I was able to appreciate it a bit more and possibly see why this doesn’t work as well as some of the other stories from J.K. Rowling.
As well as producing the film, Rowling is also writing the screenplay here (though she’s sharing writing credits with Steve Kloves an expert in the Potter world). One begins to wonder (well at least I do), whether she’s got a little bit too much power. It’s no secret that the later HP books, the ones she wrote when she was already a massive success, needed some serious editing. Clearly at that stage nobody dared to tell her anything. It seems something similar is going on here.
Novel writing and screenwriting obviously require two different skill sets, and it feels to me Rowling hasn’t fully cracked the latter yet.
You can take your time with things in a 600+ page novel to flesh out your characters, but in a script you have to do it economically and you’ve got to move quickly.
Her script has potentially good stuff in it, but it really needed a much more ruthless edit.
For a start the film is actually a bit confusing. I mean, I’ve seen it twice now and there are moments where I still wonder who wants what and why.
The story is over-stuffed with too many characters, most of whom are just there because of the four more films we’ve been promised after this. A lot of them are paper-thin, sketchy and next-to-irrelevant. We really could not care less whether they lived or died.
Eddie Redmayne for example may be a good actor in other films, but his Newt in this story is just not very interesting. He’s weird, quiet (actually too quiet! I really needed subtitles to get through some of the mumbling), a bit goofy, an animal-lover who wants to keep as many beasts as possible and to take care of them. That’s all we know about him at the start of the film… and that’s all we know at the end.
The Potter novels are mostly a coming-of-age story in a fantastical world, populated by three-dimensional characters so-well rounded often it’s often hard to pick one over the other as your favourite (or even most hateful).
Here there’s pretty much no story arc for anyone, except probably for Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who really becomes the audience surrogate through which we learn about the wonders of the wizarding world.
Newt is instead a slippery sort of character, with no backstory, no love interest, no surprises. His total lack of any other distinguishing qualities makes it hard for us to fall in love with him and actually makes him the wrong person to focus this story on. In fact he’s barely present in it, possibly because of the millions of other characters.
But aside from the confusing plot, clunky transitions, over-long sequences and dull characters, the depiction of both New York City during the Roaring Twenties and the magical world is actually beautifully done.
The production design crams so many elements and details within every frame that at times it‘s almost overwhelming, especially once you add all the CGI (though I have to say, some that wasn’t that good).
All this will probably look amazing on a theme park ride, but in this film… Mmmm…. not so much.
I just felt it failed to tap into what made Harry Potter, with its Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Gringotts, Quidditch, etc, etc, so enduring and magical.
There’s no doubt that J.K. Rowling is one of the best modern writers alive.
She is responsible for single-handedly bringing children back to reading and then somehow she was also able to draw in the adults as well, by creating a series that was not just fun, moving, wondrous and magical, but also perceptive, clever, with subversive wit and a profound understanding of the human condition.
All of which makes the failings of this film feel even bigger.
I’m probably been too harsh (and apparently I have to save some of the bitterness for its sequels), after all Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has got magic, adventure, comedy, lots of CGI and everything audiences want from a fantasy family film, so even if you may get lost in it, you’ll find enough to enjoy.
Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick.
Fantastic Beasts and where to find them is available to watch on Netflix.
See all Andrea’s film reviews here: Film reviews by Andrea Carnevali
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