(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…
(In theaters, July 2007) Clearly, the Potter film team knows that it doesn’t really have to cater to the non-reading public: This fifth entry in the Potter saga holds up well to those who are familiar with the story, but earns a few blank stares from those who haven’t read the source book. By now in the series, the elements are familiar: Potter, friends, dark lord, bla-bla-bla. But as the series gets darker and darker with each volume, so does this film treading into adult matters as Hogwarts is taken over by a power-mad busybody who does her best to dismantle schooling standards. No Wizard Left Behind? Surely I can’t be the only one making that joke. I certainly could feel the collective slash-mind wobbling when Snapes told Harry “I will attempt to penetrate your mind and you will attempt to resit me”: Sheesh, the stuff practically writes itself, doesn’t it? But slash-spotting is something I only do during dull films, and as this Potter 5 moves to the conclusion, there seems to be less and less connecting material left on-screen. Suddenly, our heroes are in a big room of glass balls. Suddenly, our heroes are fighting evil. Suddenly, someone’s gone: Dead or Out for lunch? Suddenly… well, suddenly everyone needs the book to make sense of what’s happening. But since we will all end up reading it anyway, does it really matter?
(In theaters, November 2005) I’m afraid that the Harry Potter series has achieved escape velocity: every instalments is so competently made as to escape any worthwhile critical commentary, leaving the rest of us reviewers fighting over scraps like “ooh, isn’t Hermione such a cutie?” Slightly more accessible than The Prisoner Of Azkaban, but still feeling as if a number of important relationships were short-changed by the adaptation, Goblet Of Fire hits all of the expected notes and continues J.K. Rowling’s lucky streak in seeing respectful adaptations of her books. Not that the source material is flawless, of course: Harry’s passivity in this instalment is so pervasive that it leads to one asking “just how good a magician is he anyway? Isn’t he just an average wizard with a bunch of handy friends?” But even that gratuitous bit of sarcasm isn’t enough to dim the good movie-going pleasure that this film offers. The darkening of the Potterverse continues as it becomes more apparent than ever that Harry is stuck, pawn-like, in a larger tapestry of dangers not of his own making. Good stuff, especially if it develops into something even deeper in the next episodes. Which I’ll see as soon as it comes out, of course.
(In theaters, June 2004) Well, it’s obvious that Chris Columbus is out of the picture for the third instalment of the Harry Potter series: the colour palette is harsher, Hogwarts has abandoned its all-Caucasian student policy and the camera actually moves once in a while. Hurrah for Alfonso Cuarón! But it takes more than pans and swoops to make a good film, and if Harry Potter 3 is a lot more fun to look at, it’s curiously not as steadily compelling as the first two films. The film even become literally repetitive toward the end, capping a curiously tepid dramatic arc. It certainly doesn’t help that the script cut a lot of the original story to fit in a reasonable length: some details didn’t make sense until they were patiently explained to me by other Potterphiles. (The ending is particularly chaotic, pulling thin threads out of nowhere) But let’s not go overboard with criticism: Even when it’s middling, the Harry Potter series has enough good stuff to leapfrog over most of the other movies of the year. Acting-wise, the lead trio does a fine job, and will hopefully be able to follow the series along until the end. Onward to the fourth volume, then.
(In theaters, November 2002) I’m probably not alone in saying that the Harry Potter series is essentially critic-proof as far as I’m concerned. The way they’re handled, I will simply pay up and enjoy with nary a complaint. Fortunately, it just so happens that this film, like the previous one, is quite good. A happy mix of magic and good storytelling, this second instalment builds on the first one and deepens the universe in which Harry lives, though understandably not as much as the book does. While there are significant differences between the book and the movie (enough to make some go “huh?” at some of the film’s least coherent moments), those aren’t critical or thematically different from the source material. The acting is top-notch (with a particularly amusing Kenneth Branagh), and all three lead youngsters ably demonstrate their ability to hold a picture together: Daniel Radcliffe is more assured this time around (a characteristic he shares with his character) and Emma Watson’s Hermione is still my favorite character (despite a shortened screen presence). The impression of unoriginal manipulation so prevalent in the first film is here attenuated. Good stuff for kids and adults, genre fans and mundanes. Why is it that we’ll have to wait two whole years before the next one?