Reviews: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and ‘Moana’

The last few weeks have seen the release of two highly-anticipated blockbusters, both vying for your money over Thanksgiving weekend. Over that time, both movies far proven powerhouses at the box office and have been generally well-regarded by critics. However, talking to friends and family seems to suggest that both the newest entry into J.K. Rowling’s beloved ‘Wizarding World’ and Disney’s first ‘princess’ project since Frozen took over the world,  are proving divisive among audiences. Where do I stand? Where do you?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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I walked into the theater knowing I’d be watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with two minds: one belonging to the overly-analytical wannabe film critic, the other to the lifelong Harry Potter fan who regards the franchise as one of his most significant influences. In terms of film craft, I did not expect much from director David Yates. His track record is spotty, having delivered both my favorite and least favorite Potter movies. And indeed, this is not his best work (yet not as bad as his last film, the horrible The Legend of Tarzan). Beasts is riddled with narrative no-nos like bland characters with muddled motivations and plotting that is in turns flimsy and incoherent. There are a bevy of technical and aesthetic issues including terrible editing, unconvincing green screen work and wildly uneven special effects (especially disappointing for a movie that focuses so heavily on its CGI beasts) Most unfortunately, Yates drowns every scene in his usual, drab color palette of grays and browns. Besides for one eye-popping sequence in a magical animal sanctuary, the movie’s dreary, gritty rendition of 1920s New York City is void of the colorful sense of awe, whimsy or grandeur the franchise was built on.

What surprised me most is how little fight the Harry Potter fan in me put up.  I may be a sucker for all the little Easter Eggs and can appreciate how the script expands on some of the more interesting concepts of the wizarding world, but this movie is so damn concerned with hitting all the loud, obnoxious blockbuster beats that I seriously question whether Rowling’s ‘written by’ credit is more of a marketing ploy to lend the movie much-needed legitimacy to prevent potential rage from Potter purists. No, this has all the hallmarks of a generic blockbuster written, or at the very least tampered with, by a committee of executives worried about the bottom line. This is always apparent, from the Pokemon-esque parade of cute, marketable creatures to the preposterous destruct-a-thon climax, and the horrendously mishandled twist ending that serves only to set up for a sequel. To be fair, there are a handful of moments that crackle with the series’ ample wit and inspired world-building. Don’t be fooled – it’s a mere echo of the kind of quality one would expect from something so vigorously touted as a canonized extension of the brand.

The eponymous fantastic beasts are often more interesting than the human characters, even if the actors try their hardest to make meals out of the crumbs they’ve been handed. The clear stand-out is Dan Fogler (he’s like a less-shrill Josh Gad), as a likable window into this world. The other protagonists (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol) milk all the charisma they can out of thankless parts, while Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller visibly and painfully struggle to draw any sort of life from their boring antagonist roles. Defenders might claim that, despite all of these drawbacks, simply spending time in this universe is enough of a treat. Yet even the innate escapism provided by Rowling’s extensive world has been blunted by the unsubtle, inescapable intrusions of real world issues and aggressive moralizing. The books were always rich in metaphor, but never so on the surface that you couldn’t also enjoy them as pure fantasy. Though important, the persistent allusions to everything from terrorism to homophobia and even the death penalty are so heavy-handed that it becomes nigh impossible to just sit back and take it in as a fantastical wizarding getaway. It hurts to say it, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proves to be both a poorly-made movie and a poorly-made Harry Potter story.

Score: 2 out of 5

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Moana

In 1989, John Musker & Ron Clements directed The Little Mermaid, a charming and beautiful film that kicked off the Disney Renaissance, one of the most lauded runs in cinema history (with the likes of AladdinBeauty and the Beast and The Lion King). Looking back, Mermaid is problematic for a couple reasons, mainly its grotesquely outdated gender politics: it’s the story of a young woman who wishes to be independent, but immediately proves she can’t handle independence by relinquishing her voice to a nasty octopus woman. Ariel effectively sidelines herself in her own story and only succeeds by becoming passive to the whims of the secondary, male characters. The lesson seems to be: girls should dream big, but only if they have men around to guide and protect them. Twenty-seven years later, Musker & Clements provide a clear apology in the form of Moana, another animated, ocean-set musical. This time, the hero character is everything Ariel was not: Strong-willed, whip smart and unwilling to let male characters (including love interests – you won’t find one here) steer her from her dreams of exploration. Whereas Frozen was self-aware in its revisions to the Disney princess rulebook, Moana is free to do its thing without the need for winking or nudging.

Moana is also perhaps the most beautiful computer-animated film ever made. Walt Disney Animation Studios has gradually mastered the power of 3D animation to form a hybrid of the exquisite detail of Pixar movies and the timeless, picture-book artistry and impeccable framing of Disney’s 2D classics. The water effects are especially incredible, even beating out this summer’s eye-popping Finding Dory for the CGI-H20 crown. The visual expertise is almost (but not quite) matched by the surprisingly eclectic music, which combines traditional musical numbers, Disney-fied pop and powerful, authentic South Pacific tunes. There’s nothing on the soundtrack as infectious as ‘Let it Go’, but it’s got the kind of tunes that stealthily bury their way into the brain, its catchiness catching audiences off guard. The already-underrated track ‘Shiny’ (performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), begins like a classic Disney villain song in the vein of Lion King‘s ‘Be Prepared’ only to abruptly morph into what sounds like a Blur track with echoes of Bowie. The tune is emblematic of the admirably diverse, unflinchingly oddball and ultimately successful musical stylings, even if none of it is likely to match Idina Menzel’s modern classic.

Sadly, the movie’s narrative can’t quite keep up with its superficial excellence. After Moana (Auli’i Cravalho, wonderful in her debut) teams up with legendary, egotistical demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, as charismatic as ever), the differing motivations and multiple goals of each character can become hard to follow, and their relationship develops in inorganic, unconvincing fits-and-starts. Additionally, the script can’t seem to focus on a singular theme, or even on a couple. From common ‘be yourself’ and ‘fight for what you believe in’ tropes to lessons about being humble, connecting with nature and respecting your heritage, it tries to say too much and ends up meaning little; certainly a far cry from the essential, sophisticated message of March’s Zootopia. What it loses in emotional substance, Moana largely makes up for with some of the best comedy of the year (mainly in the form of dim-witted stowaway chicken HeiHei), and colorful, high-energy action sequences, including one particularly stunning and inventive Mad Max: Fury Road-inspired chase sequence. In all, this is a vibrant, swashbuckling crowdpleaser that doesn’t quite live up to some of Disney’s other recent movies like Frozen or Tangled, but provides enough charm though its visuals, music and characters to be well worth the voyage.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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