(Long time readers of the blog will notice that the movie reviews have a new title: the mundane “at the movies” has been replaced by “movie time at the Cinemark”. From one year to the next, I never go to the movies anywhere else but the vast, popcorn smelling and now slightly shabby Cinemark in the half built shopping center about five miles from the house. If I ever see a film anywhere else, I’ll make a note.)
The best thing about the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the title. That’s mostly because it enables you to walk around your house and point at your pets, calling them fantastic beasts and declaring that you can find them sleeping in your recliner and hanging around by the stove waiting for you to drop food on their heads.
Review of the actual movie behind the cut as usual, although spoilers are minimal.
Be that as it may. Coincidentally, the best things about the actual movie are the beasts of the title. They really are fantastic, from the Niffler, the Bowtruckle and the Thunderbird who are important to the plot, to all the little background creatures the scientific pocket dimension Newt Scamander keeps in his quaint old fashioned leather suitcase. (The giant Erumpent is my favorite.)
The second best thing about the movie is an elegant, detailed and cleverly crafted view of New York City in the 1920s, both mundane and magical. The sets, props, costumes, color palettes and general “feel” combine for an unusual level of imaginary “realism”. Part of this is because movie-world “old fashioned New York” is an intimately familiar milieu to the American audience, and we can fill in all the missing the missing details as the magical aspects are thrown into high relief.
This is where I say that I am not generally a big fan of JK Rowling’s magical world. I admire the surface textures of her world building and her skills at naming, but I tend to find the underlying structures heavy handed and needlessly fraught. This film, being all surface, and with New York itself doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the world building department, works very well as a casual entertainment.
Like any good casual entertainment, Fantastic Beasts derives much of its effectiveness from the performances. The fantastic beasts as discussed above are not the only charming actors in this film. I was not particularly impressed with Eddie Redmayne’s work as Newt Scamander, although he has gotten excellent reviews. While I appreciate the pleasure people are getting from seeing a lead character who is socially awkward, Redmayne here is just one more on the list of sad-eyed boyish actors whose work leaves me cold. Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam and very like him in both looks and acting style) and Alison Sudol are much better as a different-as-night-and-day pair of magical sisters. And Dan Fogler steals the show as the mundane baker and unlikely hero. His story arc is rich and rather touching, and I found myself caring surprisingly deeply about him and his doomed (?) romance.
Don’t forget to watch for some cameos by both famous actors and familiar “types” from the Harry Potter universe. And cameo watching is something you enjoy doing during a movie that is beautiful to look at and just for fun, rather than one that is a serious work of art. This flick represents a jolly good afternoon at the cinema. I will almost certainly go to see the inevitable sequel, if just for the sake of the Fantastic Beasts.