Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

2016 #182
David Yates | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When J.K. Rowling wrote the seven-book Harry Potter series, she didn’t just make it all up as she went along — it was well planned in advance. And she didn’t just envisage a seven-book story, either — she built a whole world, including a massive history that is only fleetingly referred to in Potter itself. It’s part of that history that the five-film Fantastic Beasts series is setting out to explore. (Despite sharing a title with a short tie-in book Rowling once wrote, Fantastic Beasts isn’t somehow an adaptation of that tiny tome, despite what some pithily moronic internet commenters who think they’re funny would believe.)

Set many decades before Potter, Fantastic Beasts introduces us to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who’s travelled to New York while researching his book on magical creatures — or “fantastic beasts”. There, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the local magic council and a puritanical group who want to destroy all wizards, while some creature or force is terrorising the city.

Although labelled by some as a prequel, that’s only technically true — it is set before the Potter stories, but it’s a new story in that universe rather than a tale that leads directly into the existing narrative. As such, it’s pretty newbie friendly. It reuses familiar iconography from Potter, but it does so in neat ways — there are things that are instantly recognisable to fans, but their function is not reliant on familiarity for the sake of newcomers or the less well-versed. It’s also opening up new parts of the Potterverse — or, as they want us to call it now, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World — primarily, taking us to the USA for the first time.

Fantastic Americans and where to find them

As a new story, it develops its own particular tone and style, distinct from that of the previous movies. That partly comes from the characters we’re following: Potter is about schoolchildren, this is about adults. It’s still a 12A/PG-13, of course, but there’s a lot of wiggle-room within that category. Perhaps this is why some have found it tonally inconsistent, but I enjoyed the mix of whimsy with darkness. The overall effect was good fun, with strong action scenes and some really good — even magical — visuals. The story is bolstered by a couple of well-constructed final act twists. I found at least one to be pretty guessable, but that doesn’t detract from it being put together neatly throughout the film.

As for the widely discussed fact that this is to be the first of five movies, that fortunately doesn’t define this opening instalment. Seeds for future films are obvious because we recognise actors and, as movie-literate viewers, know how films establish things for future use; but leaving that extra-textual knowledge aside, there’s no reason this doesn’t work as a standalone adventure. People who’ve said otherwise are talking poppycock. Even stuff that initially looks like it’s purely franchise-setup has a purpose within this individual movie.

Fantastic Beasts has been dismissed in some quarters as no more than a cash-grab attempt to extend a franchise, but I thought it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of 2016.

4 out of 5

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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

2017 #56
David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

The Legend of Tarzan

Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

Me Tarzan, you jealous

Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

He does look cool, though

Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

3 out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^