Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Distracting Subplots

Among the most successful film franchises of all time, Harry Potter invited audiences to a world of magic and adventure at the wizarding school of Hogwarts. But for the next film in JK Rowling’s series, Fantastic Beasts introduces new characters, a different time-period, and a new setting in the streets of New York. For the most part, this change in tone and perspective helps remove some of the sameness that comes with franchise reboots and spin-offs. But while the immediate film is certainly enjoyable, the quality falters when Fantastic Beasts’ focuses more on setting up sequels then its own strengths as a stand-alone adventure.

With the shackles of the Harry Potter storyline removed, Fantastic Beasts‘ is allowed to forge its own identity, creating a more adult interpretation of the wizarding world then we are familiar with. the 1920’s setting compliments this new direction by stewing the film in a combination of prohibition-time intrigue, as well as a look into the differences between how British and American wizarding communities function. While there are the occasional name-drops that longtime fans will enjoy, they never distract from the immediate actions in the film, merely serving to add context to the film in relation to the Harry Potter series.

Most of the performances add plenty of dramatic weight to your traditional blockbuster fare. Eddie Redmaynes’ Newt Scamander is portrayed as a Grizzly Man/Steve Irwin-esque figure, a man whose inability to connect with people is only outmatched by his love and respect for animals. Theres a legitimate love and care that comes from Redmayne in these scenes, and it brings a lot of life to what are otherwise CGI animals. Special mention should be made to Dan Fogler, who delivers an enjoyable turn as Scamander’s friend, even while he never breaks out of the typical comedic relief archetype.

And while these performances are all well and good, the real stars of Fantastic Beasts are the beasts themselves. While the CGI doesn’t exactly make them appear lifelike, the designs manage to shine through, and give us some of the more creative moments in the film. At its best, the film takes the time to explore these creatures, making even the more wildly creative beasts feel fully fleshed out, if not more believable. The team behind bringing these creatures to life should be commended for their work, and are likely to receive recognition for their efforts come awards season.

Sadly, For a film titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there aren’t that many to find. While that isn’t to say this aspect of the film is neglected all together, a large portion of this film spends its time setting up sequels, and it never naturally melds with the Fantastic Beasts‘ portion. Often, the film stops things just as they seem to be getting interesting, and it never seems to gain back its momentum. Perhaps this comes from the length of the original story, but the way Director David Yates attempts to overcome this ends up distracting from the stand-alone strengths of this first entry into a new series. While things appear to get larger-then-life by the end, it all feels artificial with the knowledge that they are setting up something supposedly bigger.

Making matters worse is the set up for upcoming villain Grindelwald. For those who don’t know, he’s intended to be this series’s Voldemort, but he never feels natural in Fantastic Beasts‘ plot, even harming what seemed to be the films’ main antagonist by-association. Yet despite this, the film constantly treats each mention of the name Grindelwald like a bombshell, much in the same way the reveal of Kylo Ren’s identity was handled in the last Star Wars film; this is problematic, considering what should be the jumping point for anyone not intimately familiar with the Harry Potter franchise are already being left out of major moments in Fantastic Beasts, just because they didn’t already read the book and know why this Grindelwald person is so important. And with how prevalent these mentions are within the film, it ends up making Fantastic Beasts feeling like a side-story in its own film.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Fantastic Beasts, but the film never allows you to sit back and enjoy it on its own merits. By forcing a stand-alone plot into the role of a franchise stepping stone, the plot feels inconsequential, with constant reminders of “something bigger coming” undercutting the importance of the current events going on in the film. There’s still plenty to love, from strong performances from the lead stars, and creative creature design that will delight audiences young and old alike. But the constant set ups to future events, and the overall lack of focus, takes away most of the magic that we should have found from the get go.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6.5 Albino Bad Guys out of 10

Doctor Strange: Genre Weirdness Everyone Will Enjoy

For Marvel‘s second cinematic outing this year, Doctor Strange certainly has a lot to live up to. Not only does the film need to properly introduce Strange himself, a major driving force in the Marvel Universe, but also properly introduce and explore the world of magic, which the MCU has thus far not discussed. But through impeccable direction and writing, stunning special effects, and standout performances by all of the cast, Doctor Strange is one of the most imaginative and entertaining films of the year, let alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s hard to know where to begin on all of the things this film does right. The story, while familiar Marvel fare of an arrogant man being humbled and becoming a hero, feels reinvigorated thanks to the work by writer C Robert Cargill. The film smartly simplifies Strange’s life before learning the mystic arts, while leaving all the important details to flesh out his character. Once Strange begins learning how to use magic, the film slows down enough to really explore the possibilities of this new world we’re learning about, just as much as Strange is. The dialogue avoids feeling exposition-heavy, and manages to keep things moving at a steady pace, keeping viewer interest throughout the 2 hour runtime.

Equally impressive is the films large cast of well-renowned actors and actresses, each of whom deliver a stellar performance. Cumberbatch may play Strange with similar beats as Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film, but he is none the less charming, engaging and an absolute delight to see on screen. Likewise, Tilda Swinton is surprisingly charming as The Ancient One, Doctor Strange’s teacher, and manages to steal many of the film’s best scenes. The Supporting cast of Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor play their roles well as Strange’s compatriots, managing to play off Cumberbatch well, and serve as engrossing characters in their own right.

The weak spot for the Marvel films thus far have been in their romantic leads and villains. And while the characters are not given as much time as our protagonists, Doctor Strange manages to be the exception to the rule as far as its romantic lead and villain goes. Rachel McAdams is untraditional Doctor Christine Palmer, supporting and caring for Strange but still having her own responsibilities as a surgeon. Unlike other love interests, her small role in the film has less to do with her lack of importance in the film, but rather that she has her own life and responsibilities to attend to, serving as a more mature love interest who doesn’t drop everything for the needs of our male lead. Likewise, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is a given more material then the typical Marvel villain, thanks in part to his unique perspective on this new world we as an audience are being introduced to. The script gives Mikkelsen more depth to his character, so that even while he isn’t as strong as Strange as a character, we understand his motivations as more then just evil for evil’s sake, while still being an imposing threat throughout.

The real star of the film, however, are the visuals. There simple aren’t words for how uniquely bizarre the visuals manage to get, with characters bending reality and enviroments at will, leaving audiences as surprised as characters can be. Standout moments include a chase sequence that literally reshapes all of New York into an M.C. Escher-esque maze, as well as  Its frankly beautiful to look at, vibrantly colorful and simultaneously foreign AND understandable. While many have compared the visuals to Inception, there there’s nothing to visually compare Doctor Strange to, let alone a film that uses its visuals as enjoyably as this.

An enjoyable popcorn-flick, an experimental Super Hero film and a genre-bending art exhibit, Doctor Strange simply has it all and does it beautifully. Its the kind of film that you cant just see, but experience on an individual level. In a year where Super-Hero films were muddled in lore, realism and consequences, it’s beyond refreshing to find one that is so outlandishly fun, well told and, yes, strange.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 10 Astral Projections out of 10