Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

(On Cable TV, August 2017) As a mild Harry Potter fan, I wasn’t expecting much from spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. With Colin Farrell lurking in a supporting role, I was even envisioning a Winter’s Tale-sized debacle. But the result, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s savvy script and Warner Brothers’ willingness to bankroll a lavish production, is surprisingly good. Eddie Redmayne is very good as Newt Scamander, an awkward wizard with more affinity with fantastic animals than people. He arrives in New York City in time for us to get a long good satisfying look at a lavish re-creation of 1920s NYC, crammed with details and enough CGI to impress anyone. Director David Yates moves the story along at a good clip, first as light comedy and then increasingly as a full fantastic drama. The ending deserves a special mention, as it is more thematically resonant than most other forgettable CGI fantasy fests of recent years—the hero doesn’t get to pulverize his opponent out of brawn, and whatever clichés remain (city in peril, memories wiped) and handled far more gracefully than elsewhere. Production design is important: The rebuilding-the-city sequence that so annoyed me in Jupiter Ascending is transformed here in a delightful sequence by sheer accumulation of details. Spending time in 1920s NYC turns out to be a lot of fun, and no expense seems to have been spared in putting details on-screen. Redmayne is backed-up with a good cast: while Katherine Waterston has a mostly unglamorous role as a flapper voice of reason, Alison Sudol is a lot more fun as her blonde bombshell sister, gaining importance as the story goes on and falling for Dan Fogler’s unexpectedly likable character. As far as big-screen CGI spectacles go, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is far more tolerable than most of the recent fantasy epics, and it feels substantially more sophisticated than many franchise-building attempts. It’s got a heart despite the big budget, and it’s so different from the Potter movies that it can be appreciated as a standalone effort. Its nature as a prequel doesn’t hamper its effectiveness or ability to surprise, and the way it leisurely reveals its fantastic assets is wondrous rather than slow. All in all, a better-than-expected effort at a time when we’ve grown used to the commodification of the fantastic in movies. All it takes is a good script and enough resources to do it justice…

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