Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling


As a Brit, I was of course required by law to read the Harry Potter books growing up and, like everyone else, I loved them. The epic adventure, the unforgettable characters, the profound morals, the thrills, the imagination, the sensation and the magic of it all; I loved every bit of it. Although I don’t think the film series as a whole truly captured the books in all their appeal and wonder (a few of them got close though, my favourite being Prisoner of Azkaban), they have undeniably left their impact in recent movie history and I suppose a spin-off was only a matter of time. J.K. Rowling is still very much a part of the franchise and has penned the screenplay to this feature, a move that could either have worked very well or very badly. On one hand Rowling is the mastermind behind this magical universe so who better to decide on its next direction? The same however can be said of George Lucas who ran his own franchise into the ground because nobody would dare tamper with his vision. Either way, I was very interested in seeing what the result would be.

The film takes us away from Hogwarts and transports us to New York in the Jazz Age, a decade of glamour and prosperity for the States, but also one of repression and intolerance. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived on a boat on his way to Arizona. In his suitcase are a host of diverse, magical creatures including the mischievous, platypus-like Niffler, which escapes and wreaks havoc in a bank. During the chaos Newt accidently swaps suitcases with a No-Maj (an American Muggle) aspiring baker called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While Newt is taken into custody by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted Auror, three creatures escape into the city and must be recaptured. Meanwhile Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) has emerged as a leading No-Maj voice against wizardry in light of the recent crimes of the infamous Gellert Grindelwald. Her abused son Credence (Ezra Miller) however has found a friend in Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking Auror who is searching for a mysterious creature that has caused great destruction around Manhattan. These two stories intersect as Newt discovers the nature of this creature and the truth of Graves’ intentions.

By taking such a drastic change in its setting from the familiar magical school in England to 1920s New York, much is gained but also lost by this film. It is a change that allows for a new exploration of Rowling’s world from a side that has been almost entirely untouched even by the books. This breakaway from the books also allows the film considerably more freedom with its characters and narrative than Harry Potter’s story ever allowed. The downside is that much of what we identified with Rowling’s universe is lost in the transition. It is admittedly difficult to define what exactly constitutes an identity that extends beyond character and setting except that we know it when we see it. It’s the reason why The Hobbit films, while reviving many familiar people and places, didn’t quite feel like The Lord of the Rings. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have to be Harry Potter, but it does have to feel like it. Does it succeed? Yes… to an extent. There is that sense of darkness and wonder that were defining traits of the Harry Potter series as well as some of the whimsy from the two Columbus films. But there is also some of that generic, artificial blockbuster action that I would associate with a superhero movie before I would with Rowling’s stories. How many movies have we seen by this point where a large city gets levelled by an unstoppable force of CGI? Enough for it to feel tired in this film.

Now, this isn’t to say that Fantastic Beasts is not an entertaining, enjoyable movie in its own right, because it is. It has a likeable protagonist in Newt Scamandar, an eccentric wizard with some tics and a sly grin that evoked memories of Matt Smith as The Doctor. Fogler shines as Jacob Kowalski, the comic-relief sidekick who manages to be more than a comic-relief sidekick. He is our Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) surrogate in this world of magic and, just like us when we were first introduced to Rowling’s universe, he falls in love. The Potterverse is one of those franchises that can have its pick of top-quality actors and Fantastic Beasts gets its fair sure, including a couple of big American stars. Amongst the strongest of these supporting performances are such names as Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Ron Perlman. There is also an ensemble of cartoon-like magical creatures (a little too cartoony in my opinion) that will delight little children to no end. The film is at its best when it just takes a moment to revel in the world it inhabits and to enjoy the wondrous things in it. The moment my interest waned was the climax when the film ceased to be its own unique thing and instead became another typical fantasy-action blockbuster. Not bad or dull, just routine.

David Yates, who directed four of the eight Harry Potter films, is very much the safe choice for this film and he delivers about what you’d expect. He and Rowling mercifully restrain themselves from DC levels of franchise building with only the odd reference to Dumbledore, a woman called Lestrange and a (rather obvious) plot twist near the end. The story for the most part is self-contained and easy to follow. There is some of the darkness that Harry Potter was known for as the strained relationship between the wizarding and No-Maj worlds arouse themes of prejudice and intolerance. Credence’s story is also quite grim as he seems to display hints of a magical nature (and perhaps a bit of affection for his confidante that many at the time might have regarded as intolerable) but is forced to suppress that side of himself for fear of being discovered by his puritanical mother. On balance with the cutesy scenes with the magical creatures however I don’t think there is much in this film that’ll scare kids. Fantastic Beasts is by all accounts a fun, enjoyable film. The climax was underwhelming and some characters were forgettable but I definitely had a good time. There were parts that made me laugh, there were one or two moving scenes, and there were moments of spectacle that struck my inner-child. Whether this film will overcome the shadow cast by Harry Potter is a question that only the future can answer.

★★★★

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Selma

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen

Director: Ava DurVernay

Writer: Paul Webb, Ava DuVernay


It is always tough for a film to capture the spirit of a person or an event. It is even tougher for a film to capture an idea. This is what Selma sets out to do as it tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma marches of 1965 and, on a greater level, of the struggle against racism in America. The campaign for equal rights has been a long and difficult fight and it is one that still rages on even today. It is astonishing to see how a film about an event that took place fifty years ago can deliver a message that still rings true and is still relevant. It takes a powerful film to deliver a powerful message and Selma delivers all of the passion, all of the vivacity and all of the resoluteness that Dr. King showed on the day that he walked into Montgomery.

The film opens with Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) being presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the recognition and the prestige that this accolade brings, the Human Rights Campaign is still far from over. Over in Alabama we see four African-American girls get killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion and we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) applying for voting registration only to be unjustly rejected. King resolves to start actively pushing for the African-American right to vote and appeals to President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass a law that would enforce this right. Johnson however insists that he has other important issues to deal with and cannot give King what he wants at this time. One of the main controversies of this film is its portrayal of Johnson as being hesitant to help King, a portrayal that has been deemed historically inaccurate. However, to me at least, it seems both reasonable and believable that Johnson would have reservations and other concerns on his mind. Whether it was historically accurate or not, I think that it does a good job of highlighting and explaining the ambivalence exhibited by many well-intentioned people at this time. Subsequently, without the President’s backing, King travels to Selma, Alabama, and leads the charge for equal voting rights.

The fight proves difficult as King and his comrades come in opposition against the Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), a man who personifies the most hateful aspects of racism and prejudice. As Wallace adopts a policy of violence and brutality to combat King and the black Selma residents, King remains steadfast on maintaining a stance of non-violence. He is adamant that the only way the struggle of the African-Americans can be overcome is if they do not allow themselves to give in to aggression or hate. He instead insists that the people must place their faith and their trust into peace, love and God. This becomes more arduous and, in King’s view, all the more fundamental as the violence rages on and the death toll continues to rise. He then announces his intention to lead a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in the name of African-American suffrage. He hopes that by raising enough awareness of their plight and by casting a spotlight onto the crimes and the atrocities being committed upon them, he might be able to force the President into action. This leads many of King’s followers to question whether he truly has their best interest at heart.

The portrayal of Martin Luther King is undoubtedly the film’s driving force. Oyelowo delivers a layered performance as he portrays King both as an icon and as a man. He perfectly captures the voice and the mannerisms of Dr. King as he stands on the podium delivering those rousing speeches but he is also able to deliver a subtle and affective performance as he portrays King’s human side. Martin Luther King was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th century, but he was a man nonetheless; a man with doubts, a man with fears, and a man with weaknesses. The film never tries to eulogise him but instead shows him as the man he was, warts and all. It never strays away from showing the more ignoble aspects of his life as we see in one particularly striking scene when King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him on his infidelity. However they also show King as a man capable of extraordinary love and empathy, as shown when comes to the hospital to weep for a young victim of a hate crime and to comfort a grieving grandfather.

Ava DuVernay was not a name I was familiar with until I saw this film. She does an admirable job of depicting this monumental event and of the sufferings of the African-American people. She does not pull any punches as she shows just how cruel and how brutal these tribulations could become. She is also able to maintain a fair-minded approach to the story as she is careful not to idolise King. DuVernay provides balance by showing that there were those in Selma who disagreed with King’s methods and questioned his intentions. Even King has his moments of doubt when he starts wondering whether their cause is worth all of the suffering and casualties that it brings. DuVernay has been criticised for taking historical liberties and for portraying real life figures unfairly. However to criticise the film for its historicity is to miss the point. It’s not about capturing what happened, it’s about capturing the spirit of what happened. At the end of the day this is a film about the fight against prejudice and racism. This is a film about the centuries long struggle that is still ongoing today. It is about showing a single moment in time when a group of people came together and showed the world that they were not going to take it anymore, when they faced the obstacles and adversities that opposed them and triumphed.

Selma is a marvellous and a powerful film. It does an incredible job of capturing the inspirational and significant crusade of a people against an inveterate evil and of the extraordinary man who led them. It delivers an importantly relevant message as it shows us just how far we’ve all come but also how much further there still is to go. On top of that it also finishes on that kick-ass Oscar-winning song ‘Glory’ by John Legend and Common. On the whole it is an excellent and an important film that everyone should see.

★★★★★