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Fantastic Beasts brings magic back to the screen

A casino can pride itself on booking a good magic act, someone like David Blaine who can astound and captivate an unsuspecting audience. Magic, as a form of entertainment, has always been about making an audience’s jaw drop and filling their captive minds with wonder and astonishment. Yet, in movies, magic can be very hit-or-miss in regards to capturing that spectacle.

The heavily anticipated Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them never made my jaw drop, and often slogs through setup and exposition, but it definitely succeeds in captivating the audience and making the day a little bit more magical.

The story chronicles “magizoologist” Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) travels in America 70 years before the events of Harry Potter. The movie opens with the British Newt arriving in 1920’s New York. Newt is alone aside from a briefcase filled to the brim with magical creatures. Following an incident at a bank, Newt is placed under the custody of a disgraced  Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) agent named Tina (Katherine Waterston).

Concerned that Newt’s briefcase was mixed up with a non-magic (no-maj) at the bank, the duo follows the sound of destruction to the house of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a down on his luck factory worker and aspiring baker. Some of the creatures get loose from Newt’s briefcase, leaving Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), find themselves as unlikely allies trying to recapture the beasts.

Meanwhile, tensions are at a peak in the wizarding community. An unknown force is wreaking havoc in New York, and MACUSA leadership is worried that it is linked to a magical terrorist in Europe named Grindelwald.

The Harry Potter films cemented themselves as the gold standard for providing an accessible, wondrous, and entertaining imagining of magic. Now Order of the Phoenix director David Yates  has returned with the first of a series of five spin-offs from the Harry Potter Franchise and screenwritten by J.K Rowling herself in the hopes of filling the void of quality magic in the movie world.

Fantastic Beasts does many things well, starting with setting. 1920’s New York feels very authentic. The costumes are on point and the hairstyles are different and cool but not distracting. Queenie, for example, wears a pink furry coat that just screams roaring 20’s style.

On the flip-side of New York is the secret magic community – including the MACUSA headquarters, an invisible and seemingly endlessly tall skyscraper hidden within a skyscraper. The best sets collide the 1920’s style with the franchise’s brand of magic, such as when Newt and his friends get in a hectic bar-fight in a secret magic speakeasy.   

Newt’s primary objective of tracking down his lost beasts is a decent excuse to push the plot forward. The beasts are cute, unique, and definitely nail the “magical” aspect. It’s simple fun to watch various hijinks occur as the beasts are tracked down, and the chase scenes provide good humor. The Beasts don’t feel like the main focus of the movie though, because between the light-hearted chase scenes is a much darker plot.

The conflict between the MACUSA, the Second Salemers, and the mysterious force causing destruction is definitely the juicier plot, but Newt and his friends feel slightly detached from it. Many scenes don’t even have Newt in it, focusing instead on the Second Salem boy Creedence (Ezra Miller). It’s not a totally bad thing because the scenes are well-executed, but a tighter script might have made the two main plots feel more interconnected.

At the heart of Fantastic Beasts are the characters, and watching the main cast develop is the biggest treat of the movie. Eddie Redmayne gives a good performance as Newt, choosing to portray him as a slightly shy, introverted character who only opens up to his beasts. It’s refreshing to see a main character who isn’t the suave, charismatic, “hero” type.

Colin Farrell is a highlight as the auror Graves, he absolutely captivates the audience’s attention in certain scenes. Perks of Being a Wallflower standout Ezra Miller does a great job expressing loneliness and anguish as the dejected Second Salemer boy.

The real star of the show is Dan Fogler as the no-maj Jacob, who does a fantastic job of being relatable, and providing a nice blend of comic-relief and emotional depth to the film.

While the bulk of the movie is great, it definitely has its flaws. The soundtrack enhances the film on occasion, but also feels lackluster in some scenes. Also noticeable is the movie’s odd pacing, it isn’t exactly bad but you can tell that it’s Rowling’s first attempt at screenwriting

The Computer Generated Images (CGI) are believable and well executed, but go overboard on a few occasions. It would have been nice to have goblins as actual people in makeup instead of being animated.

The movie is also very obviously set-up for the next few films, and ends up chewing through a lot of exposition. There are times when character names, background information and explanations of various subjects are forced into scenes inorganically, an obvious showing of Rowling’s rookie status as a screenplay writer.

Overall though, the magic that the movie captures far outweighs any of it’s weaknesses. It’s the type of movie that leaves me excited to see where the franchise is headed, as opposed to dreading what the future holds.

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