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“Fantastic Beasts”fun but lacks focus

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-early-reviews

Fifteenth years after the first Harry Potter movie, the talents of writer J. K. Rowling and director David Yates (who has directed the fifth movie and so forth) combine once again to bring us back to the secret world of witches and wizards. Surprisingly, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is based on a book. During the Potter craze, two spin off books were published as mock guides to monsters and the sport Quidditch. With that in mind, I felt the choice was perfectly made with “Fantastic Beasts.” The last thing I would need to see is a cliche sports movie with wizards and witches.

Joking aside, Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything) plays a wizard named Newt Scamander who believes that not all mythical creatures are dangerous and can be understood. While on a trip to New York in 1926, he has stowed away in a briefcase tons of creatures that he is studying as well as taking care of. The charm of Newt really comes from Redmayne’s performance. When he’s interacting with CGI monsters, it almost feels like he has a knowledge and sense about them. When it comes to people, the character tries to find a reasoning and middle ground.  Despite the skepticism, he proves that most creatures can be easily reasoned if done right. There’s a sense of calmness to Redmaye’s performance and yet some mystery to his character.

Plopped into the mix is a normal human named Jacob who comes across the wizard’s zoo-like collection. He is perhaps the biggest surprise considering this character is played by Dan Fogler. After an up and down filmography, I’m impressed to say Dan’s performance is enjoyable while also the heart of the picture. What they do with his character is smart and clever. He is used as a means for the audience to connect with. When something strange comes his way, Jacob tries to accept it for what it is instead of running away. This is clear in some great moments when Newt is trying to capture some creatures on the loose and he tries to help. In a strange way, it feels like Dan is trying to channel Chaplin in certain scenes of chase while maintaining charm. I do hope he gets more roles like this.

Also in the mix are Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as two witch sisters that work in an underground ministry named Tina and Queenie. When these two come their way, I like how theses two have a ying and yang feel. Tina  wants to do the way of justice and expose Newt while Queenie feels otherwise. And much like with Jacob, they start to realize that maybe there is more to these creatures than they thought. Both get some great comedic moments when Tina goes after Newt for his “illegal” collection and Queenie who feels more than just a typical flapper girl.

In a nutshell, “Fantastic Beasts” feels like two movies in one. In corner, you have this well-written whimsical movie which echos classics like “Bedknobs and Brooksticks” and has the smart yet engaging wonder of a “Doctor Who” episode. Easily, the best scenes are when characters interact with Newt’s creatures as each one gets established by not just design but even quirks. A good example is one escaped animal that looks like a hybrid between a platypus and a mole yet the mind of a robber. I didn’t find a single one boring and wanted to learn more about these odd things.

Unfortunately, you have this other half which tries to mesh and yet feels like it could be its own movie. Samantha Morton plays this leader of extremists who plan to expose wizards and witches. She runs an orphanage while simultaneously beating in propaganda about the existence of magic and going as far to even abuse one of the orphans for his beliefs. Somewhere in this other subplot is an invisible creature that goes around and makes destruction in King Kong fashion. This is not a bad idea, but it feels sidelined when you compared it to the other tone of the movie which tires to be amazing and light-hearted. We jump back and forth even the point we can tell which story we are in by the cinematography. Story A which is about the creatures on the loose appears more bright and colorful. While Story B about the witch hunters looks bleak, dark and Burton-lite in spots.

Aside from that flaw in story/pacing, “Fantastic Beasts” is guaranteed to the best flick of the holiday season so far. I loved the characters, the premise and even the climax which gets intense but knows how to have fun. According to Rowling, there seems to be 4 more films coming from this one and I’m fine with it. I want to see what else can be done in this universe, but even then I do question a few things left nearly hanging by the end. After over a decade of being on the big screen, this secret world of wizards and witches appears to never be short on supply of creativity and magic.

Rental Corner: 2003 “Peter Pan” harmless despite some wonder

Criminally underrated or deserves to be forgotten?  Well, Christmas 2003 was a hard year for a lot I'll say that much

Criminally underrated or deserves to be forgotten? Well, Christmas 2003 was a hard year for a lot I’ll say that much

I think we can all agree that we grew up with Peter Pan in our childhood. The idea of a kid that never grew up, lives in a world far beyond the stars, has a group of friends at his aid and fights pirates surprisingly never got old. J. M. Barrie unleashed an amazing world of fairies and cut throat pirates while bringing in a group of interesting characters. But as far as film versions go, there’s always two I tend to look at; The animated Disney version from 1951 and Steven Spielberg’s “possible sequel” Hook. I watched these movies a lot as a kid admiring the child spirit of the animated version while Hook acted more like lost “fatherhood” than a search for childhood. With these two embedded in my mind, there was practically no other take I can think of that really stood out and said “this is Pan in his finest hour.” I’m also aware of the Fox animated series “Peter Pan and the Pirates” which sadly I never saw at the time. But I will say thanks to the Internet, I can mark it off as a good twist on the classic tale.

Now, jump to the holiday season of 2003 which I will always regard as the dark period of my theater going experiences. There was a great amount of family movies that came out at the time that rarely became a box-office hit. Sure there was Elf and the last Lord of the Rings movie, but with so much competition at stake, I felt everyone had no idea which was a safe choice to watch with their kids or just by themselves. Brother Bear and Looney Tunes: Back in Action failed to make a big splash at the box office while The Cat in the Hat and The Haunted Mansion were failures with critics and viewers for taking cherished nostalgia into pure crap. With many mainstream movies geared for the adult audience like Honey and Bad Santa, it was a tough act to find a film that was for the younger crowd while also good at the same time. The only two I can think of that were true hits were Elf and the remake Cheaper by the Dozen. With so many different films to choose from and compete against, it was a tough market to be in let alone for a movie about a boy who could fly and never get old. And for these reasons alone, that is why I think P. J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan” wasn’t a box office success.

He's not "the Pan" but credit for the effort. Though that leaf and grass outfit is a bit off putting...

He’s not “the Pan” but credit for the effort. Though that leaf and grass outfit is a bit off putting…

Needless to say, I never saw this adaption in theaters but wanted to. It looked darker and felt like an edgier take. But once 2004 kicked in, those memories of seeing trailers and TV spots while getting hyped faded away. It wouldn’t be long til I finally saw it (or at least some) when I was in 8th grade. It was a basic situation where a movie would play while one would work to arts and crafts to pass the time. And unfortunately, that is how I best remember my “fond” memories. I knew the technology was finally updated to the point where CGI could be a lending hand but something about it kept me from seeing the special effects as unique. It was action-packed and went into grim territory when needed but I always kept thinking back to Harry Potter when it came to family films that had a balance between light and edge. The cast and its performances were good but there was not much I could remember that really stuck out to me. Well, after finally revisiting “Peter Pan” I can finally say that I don’t think its necessarily a bad movie but there was room for improvement that just didn’t meet my expectations.

The story about a kid that “never grew up” is there and the entire cast again is not bad. Jeremy Sumpter plays the Pan in grass clothing and all while promsing Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) that a world lies beyond the stars where she can remain young forever and never get old. Seeing her parents are pressuring her into adulthood, she accepts while tagging her brothers John and Micheal who relish in the thought of adventure as much as they do. The kid acting is fine even among the Lost Boys who don’t feel dull or generic. Again, I can’t think of a bad performance as we started to get into that age where child acting really got up to speed and showed that a ten year old can really carry emotion.

Jason Isaacs is Hook. He's no Dustin Hoffman but is equally decent.

Jason Isaacs is Hook. He’s no Dustin Hoffman but is equally decent.

Jason Isaacs is devious as Captain Hook while also stern and awkward as Mr. Darling. In keeping with stage play tradition, the actor who plays Hook also has the role of the father of the Darling family. But what feels missing is the same amount of menace that Mr. Darling had to make that connection between reality and fantasy. Instead, Mr. Darling is depicted as a bumbling klutz than the usual “nose to the grindstone” father that is usually seen. I guess this was done to lighten him up seeing Hook is fierce in comparison but I can see the idea of Darling being equally menacing as the infamous pirate. Even the Disney version knew when to limit that by showing he wasn’t a bad father but frustrated while trying to stick to his beliefs of what makes in his opinion a good family. Instead, the 2003 version has him trying to overcome social awkward tropes while also played as the comic foil.

When Jason Isaacs plays Hook, however, its the total opposite. He really chews out the scenery in being a memorable Hook. He sets his sights on revenge without stop, he is a cunning planner, lays his crew to waste when he’s frustrated or angry, and even proves to be a huge threat for our heroes. I should say this is hands down a good take on the character but something feels missing. With Has Conried, he was devious while still a campy yet funny version. And Dustin Hoffman delivered a more psychological variation that is played for laughs and dug into the character’s mindset. Its not that Isaacs is not doing a bad job as this is the Hook we all wanted, but there’s not much fun to his character. He’s used as a straight up villain which is not bad but I wish there was more humor to his take.

*groans* oh the subtly...

*groans* oh the subtly…

On top of that, there are some elements in this version that feel really uncomfortable. I don’t know if its the source or how the film is delivered but there is a lot of romantic tension that come off as feeling awkward. I guess it didn’t bother me too much as a teenager because I didn’t pick it up on first watch, but it feels like there’s a lot of “sexual tension” between Peter Pan and Wendy most of the time. The dialogue when they talk for the first time is executed in a manner that feels like something adults would say and there’s all these close ups of Peter getting excited that are really tight and enclosed that ruin the whim of the moment. Wendy should be amazed by the idea of a kid that can fly and remain his age. Not all these metaphors about martial parenting and teenage love. It almost comes off as creepy. And it doesn’t help either when later on Hook seduces her with piano and a lobster dinner that feels near pedophilia when he talks about having her join her crew of adult pirates, tell stories and there are these moments where Hook acts like a lady  charmer in subtle expressions. It just feels weird and unsettling. Maybe I’m looking at this too much seeing it is a fantasy for the younger crowd but it just comes off as out of date in either the context its delivered in or just suffers from being seen in a new vision.

Wow...look at the "so totally not a CGI" Crocodile

Wow…look at the “so totally not a CGI” Crocodile

It also doesn’t help the special effects haven’t held up here. Don’t get me wrong. Some things like the sets and Ludivine Sagnier’s tiny appearance as Tinkerbell do work. But from time to time, you can tell when something is CGI and when something is being blue screened to the point you don’t feel like kids are flying in the air or that a crocodile is really chasing after Hook. Its surprisingly how another pirate movie (Pirates of the Caribbean) at the time used CGI and practical to a degree where they blend seamlessly where else here it just feels like a video game crafted for the PS2. A good example is when the Darling kids fly for the first time as they jump off a bed. Its clearly established its such a small room where else when they jump into the air, the ceiling above them looks huge out of the Sistine Chapel. With many inconsistencies and effects that range from cartoony to an obviously computer crafted crocodile, they took me out of the moment where I felt like I was watching a movie and not so much fully convinced Neverland.

So your probably thinking I really dislike this adaption? Well, its more half and half. As a kid, I would have enjoy seeing this version but at the time, Harry Potter was on the scene and really pushed the boundaries for young fantasy. I feel with Hogwarts on the big screen and enchanting audiences ages 8 to 52, there wasn’t much to offer here aside from trying to be this edgier take. There’s even elements that I felt could have been better expanded on like the Native Americans and mermaids we see for one scene or even how the logic of Neverland works. To be fair, it does start off clever as Pan’s emotions sort of control the island as his absence creates winter but yet his existence on Neverland creates spring. But then there are things like when he is sad it becomes winter again or when he’s happy it becomes bright and sunny. Whatever its trying to say in this metaphoric view, it just comes off as a nice idea but weird in execution.

Funny how I remember the teaser poster being more brooding and interesting than the actual movie. Where was THIS version?

Funny how I remember the teaser poster being more brooding and interesting than the actual movie. Where was THIS version?

Maybe if this “Pan” found a balance between light and dark while placing a bit more effort into its effects while being fun and light yet unique adaption, I wouldn’t feel so underwhelmed. In a way, I expected a lot more from this version but it felt like it was playing itself too safe in spots when it tried to be dark and lost in trying to be acceptable for mainstream audiences. The final result is not a bad movie but it feels near forgettable. My personal take is that after showing how much fantasy can do with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, it became a tough act to follow while opening a new door. Now you can make characters with depth while meshing them with amazing worlds that are digital but feel grand. “Peter Pan” feels more like a wannabe Harry Potter and less like an adaption that does its own thing. Once in a while you get a good moment and a nice visual but its bogged down by how the source is being presented or some strange directing choices that I tend to question or wish why it exists. I wouldn’t say its a movie I wouldn’t let kids watch as I can’t think of any bad morels or anything that I felt was awful. Its harmless enough on its own to watch. But with a new “Pan” on the horizon that is taking the origin route (much like “Maleficent” or “Oz, the Great and Powerful”), I am starting to wonder if there is hope for that second star to the right…