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Unaware of rising tensions, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City nearing the end of a global excursion to research and rescue magical creatures, some of which are safeguarded in the magical hidden dimensions of his deceptively nondescript leather case.  But potential disaster strikes when unsuspecting No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) inadvertently lets some of Newt’s beasts loose in a city already on edge – a serious breach of the Statute of Secrecy that former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) jumps on, seeing her chance to regain her post as an investigator. However, things take an ominous turn when Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the enigmatic Director of Magical Security at MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), casts his suspicions on both Newt and Tina.(From Warner Bros.’ official synopsis)

 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
As someone who was never particularly captivated by the Harry Potter franchise, I accept that continuing adventures in the universe are not made to entertain me specifically. On the other hand, I actually enjoyed some of those movies (much to the chagrin of friends that are fans, parts three and five are far and ahead my favorites), so the chances of a prequel franchise reboot not meeting my expectations are pretty remote. Frankly, David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the first in a proposed quin of movies based on Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s fictional field guide/textbook of the same name – only needed to remind me of the best parts of the Harry Potter series and not overstay its welcome (since every single one of these movies is too long) for me to consider it a success. I didn’t expect Rowling and the filmmakers to redefine or subvert the established canon.

The most notable aspect of this movie, as far as I’m concerned, is the fact that Rowling herself wrote the screenplay, rather than depending on the efforts of the adaptation brain-trust behind the Harry Potter movies. I do think this is a significant development, especially since Fantastic Beasts has a shorter runtime than any other movie in the franchise. I haven’t read any of these books, so I’m never sure exactly what was cut or altered on their journey to the big screen, but there’s often a sense of missing subplots and character developments, especially during Yates’ own Order of the Phoenix (2007), which was the shortest (138 minutes) up to this point. I didn’t get that sense from Fantastic Beasts – almost certainly due to Rowling’s direct involvement and the fact that it was designed to be a movie, rather than a book. Despite some extraneous elements (quite a bit of time is spent collecting the supernatural animals instead of advancing the plot), the narrative feels complete and comparatively compact. It isn’t the best, but it is definitely the most efficiently told film in the canon and, moreover, one that balances the whimsy of a kid-friendly universe with drama of a more adult-oriented plot. I suppose the older movies did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of ‘world-building,’ but Fantastic Beasts still has a lot of specific exposition to unload and not a whole lot of time to do it. The only part that really suffers due to this brevity is the development of Colin Farrell’s character. His motives are clear and his continuing menace is set for future entries, but his threat is vaguely defined and the shocking twist of his identity doesn’t really carry much weight.

 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Sometimes I feel sorry for David Yates. Despite directing four of the highest grossing movies of all time, he can’t seem to catch a break outside of the Harry Potter series. On top of that, his work on the series wasn’t even based on his own vision, at least not exclusively. All of the movies were built on the production design choices that Chris Columbus developed for the first movie. The only filmmaker that did much to redefine its look was Alfonso Cuarón, who ensured that Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) had a more modern edge. Yates’ four films represented a distillation of the ideas already firmly established by the first three movies, which is sort of impressive (especially considering how much his direction improve), but can’t have been very creatively satisfying. His hyper-bland work on The Legend of Tarzan, which was released a mere five months before Fantastic Beasts, may verify that his talents are best employed when refining the artistic efforts of other creative people. I’d prefer that Fantastic Beasts would separate itself from its predecessors with more than changes in setting and period, but I understand why it errs on the side of overly-familiarity and appreciate the effort Yates has put into this ‘purified’ Potterverse. In terms of that aforementioned balance of whimsy and weighty themes, I also need to give Yates and his special effects crew credit for ensuring that the cute critters and terrifying monsters all feel like they belong in the same visual universe.

Video


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras (the first digitally-shot Harry Potter movie, for the record) and post-converted into 3D. It is presented on this 2D Blu-ray in 1080p video and framed at a steady 2.40:1 aspect ratio (in IMAX theaters, some scenes expanded to 1.85:1). The contrast, colour grading, and all other post-production fiddlings ensure that this prequel fits the universe (as I mentioned above), while also establishing an earlier era. And what better way to establish period than desaturation and sepia tones? At least that’s what Yates and Academy Award nominated cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s (taking his first foray into the Harry Potter universe) decided. So, colour quality isn’t exactly eye-popping (some of the creatures in Scamander’s suitcase are quite vibrant, at least), but it is very consistent and cleanly established. Fantastic Beasts features production design every bit as highly textured as its predecessors and this transfer makes good use of the busiest, most deep-set wide-angle shots. There are slight signs of edge enhancement along the harshest black edges and some minor halo effects throughout some of the more complex gradations, but not a lot of other compression effects.

 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Audio


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is presented in Dolby Atmos sound, though this review pertains to the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 core soundtrack. While there are, of course, a number of booming, magic and monster-driven action sequences, which overwhelm the soundscape, the track is most impressive for its subtle directional cues. This approach beautifully illustrates the difference between the human and wizard worlds by immersing the audience at the center of dry, mechanical mortal environments and bouncy supernatural environments. The contrast between the areas of Scamander’s little zoo is also quite impressive. None of this noise drowns out the clean and centered dialogue or James Newton Howard’s fanciful score. Howard takes John Williams’ original Harry Potter themes into consideration without directly reproducing any of them, aside from hints of the old title theme. His cues are pretty memorable and help lighten the mood of some of the more intense creature capture and escape scenes, which is important in establishing the threat of the more serious battles.

Extras


  • Before Harry Potter: A New Era of Magic Begins! (15:31, HD) – Rowling, Yates, and producers David Heyman & Lionel Wigham, and the lead cast discuss the return to the Harry Potter universe and the process of developing a movie based on the author’s loosely-defined pre-Potter mythology.
  • Characters – A series of brief featurettes in which the filmmakers and cast discuss developing the major characters, their inspirations, and the costume design and props used to bring them to life:
    • The Magizoologist (4:14, HD) – Newt Scamander
    • The Goldstein Sisters (5:04, HD) – Tina and Queenie
    • The New Salemers (4:42, HD) – The Barebones family
    • The No-Maj Baker (4:42, HD) – Jacob Kowalski
    • The President and the Auror (5:37, HD) – Seraphina Picquery and Percival Graves
  • Creatures – A companion piece series of featurettes concerning the fantastic beasts seen throughout the film, from design to special effects execution:
    • Meet the Fantastic Beasts (4:18, HD)
    • Bowtruckle (2:36, HD)
    • Demiguise (2:20, HD)
    • Erumpent (3:42, HD)
    • Niffler (2:29, HD)
    • Occamy (3:09, HD)
    • Thunderbird(2:24, HD)
  • Design – Set/production design featurettes:
    • Shaping the World of Fantastic Beasts (5:54, HD)
    • New York City (7:25, HD)
    • MACUSA (7:07, HD)
    • Newt’s Magical Case (4:59, HD)
    • The Shaw Banquet (4:29, HD)
    • The Blind Pig (4:39, HD)
  • Eleven deleted/extended scenes (14:33, HD)


 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Overall


To reiterate, I’m not much of a Harry Potter series fan and I had little interest in the franchise continuing beyond the original books and movies. I think the fact that I enjoyed the first entry in this pseudo-prequel series, even with reservations (it’s not what I’d call a ‘memorable’ movie in the end), is an good indication that the filmmakers are on the right track. I wish Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was even more stylistically differentiated from the Potter movies, but I think it does an admirable job of appealing to the youngest fans as well as their parents without awkwardly dividing its childish and mature themes. Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray looks sharp, sounds outrageously good, and features a decent, if not brief selection of extras. I assume they’re saving more stuff for special editions, 3D editions, collector’s editions, et cetera.

 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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