“Fantastic Beasts: and Where to Find Them” movie review

fantasticbeasts_1Spellbinding! Return to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in this fantastic film filled with phenomenal cinematic storytelling and mesmerizing magic. Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts boasts incredible talent on and off screen that is sure to strike both a nostalgic cord with audiences as well as renew a sense of wonder in this new epic tale preceding the events of Harry Potter by more than six decades. From the flawless editing to the character dynamics, this film is definitely one to look for in the technical categories during awards season. Fantastic Beasts is also the first time that fans of Rowling’s wizarding world will witness a film based on an original screenplay and not a work of literature. After watching this movie that essentially extends a wildly popular and successful film franchise, it is clear that ‘the magic awakens’ in a manner that is destined to thrill the dedicated fanbase and ignite the passion of new fans. Whereas the last time a franchise was ‘awakened,’ it felt like a mashup of that which had been heard and seen before, Fantastic Beasts provides audiences with completely new characters in a new city facing all new challenges in a world that echoes the past but is clearly a new fantastical frontier.

Many decades before Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort would cross wands, across the pond a whole new world of witches, wizards, and fantastic beasts is beckoning for adventure. While on a rather academic expedition to locate, identify, and protect magical creatures, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City to transport and collect the final creatures he needs to complete his zoologic study and publish his research. Unfortunately, this expedition is all but academic. After bumping into no-mag (no-maj/no magic) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) at the bank, Scamander mistakenly swaps briefcases with Jacob and unwittingly releases the magical creatures to roam about the big apple. With bizarrely unexplained events in the no-mag world causing people to pry into the magical world with risk of fully exposing it, Newt’s creatures become the target of the American magical congress. After bumping into an unlikely nemesis turned ally Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her adorable sister Queenie (Fine Frenzy), teaming up with Jacob, Newt and his friends must capture all the magical creatures and solve the mystery of what is actually reeking havoc in both the magical and no-mag worlds.

Before analyzing the film’s content, I think it’s best to step back and look at the larger picture here. This is the first time that one of Rowling’s wizarding movies is not based on one of her novels, plays, etc. Furthermore, this also makes the fourth time, for all intents and purposes, in recent years that a popular film franchise with a highly dedicated fanbase is being extended (on the front and/or backside). The other three being: Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and to a lesser extent Star Trek; yes, there are other popular franchises that are being added to, but they are mostly perpetually continual ones like MarvelDC, or the Scary Movies, etc. Although Fantastic Beasts was highly anticipated upon the initial teaser trailers and social media traffic, the elephant in the room was whether or not it would go by way of The Phantom Menace and Jurassic Park III or The Force Awakens and Jurassic World. Thankfully, this return to the wizarding world appears to be going by way of the latter! Still too early to tell if it will truly reignite a fandom in the way the extensions did for the Star Wars and Jurassic Park franchises respectively, but the storytelling is solid and refreshing. Extending a wildly popular but essentially complete franchise is a dangerous road to go down, but Fantastic Beasts is successful in its endeavor to return audiences and fans to a world of magic and adventure.

The first cinematic element you will notice in the movie is the editing, inclusive of special effects. The prologue sequence was an incredibly brilliant way to reintroduce the audience to the wizarding world. I thoroughly enjoyed the innovative approach to integrating the magical newspapers into the opening sequence following the prologue. Although I am not a fan of 3D movies–ordinarily–I imagine that this sequence would provide quite the high degree of spectacle if watching the 3D version (which I did not do). It would not be surprising if this film gives Rogue One a run for its money in the visual/sound effects, editing, and score categories during award season. One element I was specifically looking for was the use of practical effects, props, and animatronics since it’s a film about magical creatures. I watched an advanced screening of Allied immediately before watching Fantastic Beasts; so, be honest, I need to watch it again to locate and identify uses of practical effects or animatronics. But I believe that, to a small extent, some of the scenes including interactions between the human characters and creatures used animatronics. When animatronics and CGI are used in a film–especially in the fantasy/adventure or sci-fi genres–the result is authenticity and a realness that cannot be achieved otherwise.

Eddie Redmayne delivers an outstanding performance as Newt Scamander. Absolutely flawless. From the lack of eye contact to the facial twitches to the over-all manner in which he carried himself, Redmayne does an exceptional job of bringing this character to life. Not having any books to base his characteristics off of, it was important to provide audiences with a protagonist who was both entertaining to watch and find a place in the hearts of fans in two hours. Both were definitely accomplished. Joined by an amazing cast of chief and secondary supporting players, the brilliant direction of David Yates is seen in all the character dynamics throughout the movie. I greatly appreciate the lack of developed physical romance or attraction between Newt and Porpentina and instead the mild romantic subplot involve the sexy Queenie and lovable Jacob. The villains are nicely developed as well. Of course, the best part is not quite knowing who the villains are. Going into that in more detail will give away too much; however, there are many options for villains, anti-heroes, and allies so sometimes you will not be certain who’s an ally, villain, or anti-hero or someone who was thought to be a villain turn out to be a possible ally. Although there are definitely some predictable elements in the movie, there is sufficient enough unpredictability that it will keep you guessing and engrossed in the storytelling.

Prepare to be whisked away to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world! I cannot wait to see how Universal Orlando/Hollywood will integrate this new series into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter into their parks and resorts. The famous Harry Potter Studio Tour in England may have some new additions as well. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a delight for the whole family and is sure to generate new fans while appealing to and satisfying legacy ones.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” movie review

missperegrinneSurprisingly exciting! Twentieth Century Fox brings another YA novel to the screen. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (from here on out noted at Miss Peregrine) is both a fish out of water story combined with a magical adventure that mildly comments on the human condition. Of all the YA movies that have been produced over the last few years, this one provides a much more dynamic experience than many of the others. Burton delights audiences with the classic Burton style that many of us have grown up with. In more recent years, I have often commented that he is essentially a parody of himself–a.k.a. Burt Porn (as coined by my friend Leon in Germany)–not true with Miss Peregrine. Get ready for a return to the class Burton that brought us timeless movies such as A Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. The great cast is supported by the appearances of Samuel L Jackson and Dame Judi Dench. From Florida to Wales, this movie is sure to whisk you away to daring adventures requiring rather peculiar abilities to defeat those who would seek to take what isn’t theirs to have.

All Jake (Asa Butterfield) knew was his ordinary life. He had a rather blah home life, an eccentric grandfather, and a job that he hated. Until one day, something peculiar happened. In his grandfather’s dying breath he told Jake to find the island. With his parents finding his sports of what he saw at his grandmother’s death to be quite bizarre, they forced hi to visit a psychiatrist. Upon finding a mysterious letter, Jake is determined to find the home in which his grandfather grew up. Accompanied by his cynical father, Jake returns to the island where his grandfather grew up. Only he could never have expected the adventure and run of this life that he will soon find himself. Stumbling across the children’s home ran by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), Jake teams up with the most unusual but fascinating people who are in a rush against time to defeat those who are out to destroy them.

If I had to name one takeaway from this film, it would be that it reminds me of the 1980s/90s Tim Burton before he “went down the rabbit hole.” It combines his surreal and gothic filmmaking style juxtaposed against his flare for the colorful and bizarre. Although it is not an original concept by any means, if you’re a fan of Fox’s film adaptations of or the animated series X-Men, then you will likely enjoy this movie! Not having read the book, I cannot comment on the film’s alignment and commitment to the literary work written by Ransom Riggs; but, from what I have read online–even the author himself–is pleased with Burton’s translation from page to screen. Very few directors would have been so successful at bringing this story to life more than Burton.  Despite an apparent successful translation from book to movie, the film suffers from an overload of mythology, exposition through dialog, and lacks the thrills to completely balance out the former two elements. Although this movie may feel like one that you have seen before, it does offer a glimpse into Burton’s prime years and perhaps offers a hope that the acclaimed visionary director can once again impress us with his fantastical but highly effective cinematic storytelling.

One of the most successful elements to the X-Men’s plight as individuals born with peculiar abilities is the fact that they are human. They hold onto their humanity (the good guys anyway). Miss Peregrine’s children do not appear to offer the same level of humanity as their X-Men counterparts. The impact of the X-Men’s abilities is felt not only by the X-Men themselves but by the community at large. For the most part, Miss Peregrine’s children’s abilities largely leaves no impact upon themselves or others. Almost plays off more as a convenient plot device than character attributes. Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield’s fake American accent does not really suit his character of Jake. In a world of fantastical dynamics and depth, he plays off as a boring, flat character. In screenwriting, it is vitally important for the writer to cause the reader/audience to love the protagonist and/or love to hate the antagonist. I found it hard to love Jake or truly hate Barron (Jackson).

So, the movie may not have the amazing principle cast that we are accustomed to in a Burton movie; but, it does still contain Burton magic and some exciting and beautiful visuals. It is also a lot of fun to watch! In addition to being fun to watch, it contains some rather disturbing imagery and cringeworthy moments. But that’s par for the course with classic Burton. One of my favorite parts in the movie is the action-packed climactic sequence accompanied by dark humor. It’s a great combination of humor and visceral conflict. If you’re looking for a fun movie to watch this weekend, then this one is a solid pick! Furthermore, if you desire to get a glimpse into a more classical Burton film, then you’ll find utter delight in this one as well.

Saturday Afternoon in the Park with Magic

magic-wandIf you are giggling right now, then I know you catch the reference in my article’s title this week ;-). Ordinarily, I select some sort of theme to write about in regards to a theme park itself or attraction. But this week, I thought I would take a lighter approach to my weekly article on themed entertainment and write about my experiences this past weekend. Most weekends, you can find me in the parks of Central/West Central Florida. Living within a short driving distance of the parks, I generally do a lot of park hopping. What is park hopping, you ask? It’s when you spend a few hours in different parks throughout the day. Essentially, hopping from one to the other. Since I live here, I don’t feel as if I need to spend a significant amount of time in any one park. Honestly, I find that sometimes you can get just as much accomplished in a few hours in the evening than in an entire day. Anyway. I had a few notable experiences that I just wanted to share. Anytime something extra special happens to me while I am in a park, I refer to it as magic. Partially because having worked at Walt Disney World for a few years, I often referred to extra special actions throughout the day as “making magic.” But, magic in the parks is not limited to just Disney, but they all have a certain magic.

Steamy hot summers are just part and parcel to living in central and south Florida. Living here, you figure out ways to still enjoy the parks while not falling down dead from heat stroke. Haha. From knowing which snacks or beverages are the most refreshing to alternating between indoor and outdoor attractions or simply visiting a store between rides. Sometimes a combination of the aforementioned works out the best.

Saturday afternoon, following flying around on a bench and helping Harry defeat dementors and such on Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, I was definitely in the mood for something refreshing prior to boarding the Hogwarts Express to Kings Cross Station at Universal Studios. My friend Nelson and I were walking past the Butterbeer cart near Dragon Challenge when I decide to get a frozen butterbeer. Often, the line is really long and I just assume wait until the slower seasons but the line wasn’t too bad this time. After about 5mins of waiting, I was ready to place my order when Nelson asks if his Universal team member discount applies to the cart. Much like with the annual passholder discounts, his too was only applicable at indoor locations. The young lady suggested that we go inside Three Broomsticks to the bar and order one there.

Taking her advice, Nelson and I walked over to the former Enchanted Oak restaurant, now the Three Broomsticks, and head to the bar. Didn’t take long to notice that the line for the bar wrapped completely around the room. I commented that we were better off in the outside line and no discount. Back outside we went. Walking past that same cart again, the line was even longer than before, so I decided that butterbeer wasn’t all that important. Or was it? I proceeded to wait in the line again for my refreshing frozen butterbeer. Having to wait 10 minutes this time, I anxiously awaited the frozen beverage delight! Not to my surprise, it was the same citizen of Hogsmeade that I encountered earlier. She was just as pleasant as she was before, which is difficult to do on a blistering hot day. We both exchanged a few giggles because it was obviously that she knew that I had returned to her cart because the line was too long inside. After she poured my butterbeer with marshmallowy froth from the taps, I handed her my card and she replied “no charge.” WOW! How incredibly thoughtful. The last thing I expect is to get anything complimentary in the parks. This incredibly unexpected magical encounter in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter certainly helped to brighten my day and make my friend Nelson a little jealous. Haha.

The magic did not stop at WWoHP, but I experienced some more magic later on Saturday evening. After finishing up at Universal, and making a stop at SeaWorld for a couple hours, my friends and I headed over to Magic Kingdom to meet up with a couple more folks. While on the monorail, the couple of friends that we were meeting starting booking FastPasses and relaying to us which ones the selected. This whole process would’ve been a lot easier had we all been linked on the MyDisneyExperience app. Sometimes, I forget to add people or neglect mentioning to them to add me. Moving along. After some adding, cancelling, and searching, it was apparent that everyone grabbed the last slots except me. Thankfully the lines were fairly short–even for a non summer day. Perks of going in the evening. So, I wasn’t too worried. I imagined that someone in our group would wait in standby with me as as to not ride alone. However, riding alone is something I do quite often, so nothing new there. Out of our group of five, only two were able to snatch up FPs (by was of a re-addmittance card) for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, that meant that three of us had to wait in standby.

After riding It’s a Small World and the iconic Tea Cups (note: the trick to not getting sick is to spin your tea cup in the same direction as the platform) we all decided to get some ice cream. While across from Mine Train, Jason thought about asking the greeter at the attraction if he would add the three of us to his re-add. If you are familiar with how strict FP and re-add policies have become, you know that this may as well be a fool’s errand. Jason told us to start walking to our next stop which was Splash Mountain and he’d catch up. As we began walking across Fantasyland, and commenting how Jason’s quest was not going to pan out well, we did not get past the carousel when he came up to us and told us that we had been added! So, now all five of us could go through the FastPass line. Sweet! And I thought getting my free butterbeer was as magical as it was going to get on Saturday. Experiencing some them park magic in Fantasyland, how apropos!

Whether I experience extra special magic in the parks or not, I will always enjoy going. There is just something so uniquely experiential in the ability to casually enjoy the parks at my leisure. However, it is times like the ones I have mentioned that even surprise even me! In addition to the encounters I highlighted in this article, I also experienced receiving express passes from Universal Guest Relations after leaving a compliment for the Hogsmeade merchant and getting accommodated in the FP queue at Space Mountain. So, four magical experiences in one day in the parks!

“The Jungle Book” (2016) movie review

JungleBookDisney Nature meets beloved animated classic! Disney’s newest live-action remake of an animated classic surprisingly plays out very well. Unlike last year’s CinderellaThe Jungle Book strikes a perfect balance between creating a new more visceral experience of a familiar story and paying homage to the best of what the animated version had to offer–the essence of what made it “Disney.” As I was sitting in the theatre, I was amazed at how much the film truly felt like a classic Disney masterpiece that just happened to include beautiful cinematography, incredibly well engineered CG animals, and a plot; albeit, not a dynamic, thrilling, or deep plot, but a coherent plot nevertheless. That’s more than I can say about the original. Even though, I too like the classic. After the Cinderella cinematic schlock, I was not expecting much out of this film. But, I stand (or sit, rather) corrected. The Jungle Book is encouraging in that it proved to me that Disney can still tell a good story that is great for a wide audience and includes the core of the magic of an animated classic but successfully translates the narrative into a live-action movie.

Deep in the Indian jungles, an orphan human infant is found by a wise and caring panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Knowing he would die alone, Bagheera took him to a pack of wolves to be raised as one of their own. Being given the name Mowgli (Neel Sethi) spend his childhood as a wolf. When Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), a vengeful bengal tiger, threatens the wolf pack and the rest of the jungle, Mowgli decides to leave the pack and head for the man village–the jungle is no longer a place for a man cub. Guided and guarded by Bagheera, Mowgli must begin to adapt to his soon to be new life, but is having the most difficult of time. Throughout his journey through the misty jungles, Mowgli will encounter animals and beats he has never seen and even make some new friends along the way, including the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray). All the while, he must avoid an encounter with Shere Kahn while pressing on his journey of self-discovery and wild adventure.

Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau demonstrate that a live-action remake of an animated Disney classic can be the best that a modern cinematic general audience movie can be and still hold onto the magic that has made it a story to stand the test of time. As I have not read the Rudyard Kipling work of literature upon which The Jungle Book is based, I’d like to imagine that this version of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo’s adventures does the words of the English journalist and author justice. Unlike the original beloved movie devoid of any real coherent or conventionally structured plot, this remake tells a visual story supported by a simple but effective narrative complete with proper turning points, twists, and events. The pacing is also well-engineered, which creates a pleasant journey for the mind as well as the eyes. Using mostly on location jungle shots, supported with subtle sound stage sets gives this film a natural beauty that feels like something right out of a Disney Nature documentary. Contrary to how some CG animals can look, these creations were fantastically real–like you could reach out and stroke Bagheera’s ebony hair. Newcomer Neel Sethi is impressive to watch as Mowgli. He embodied the lovable characteristics of the animated version whilst adding in a modern twist. One of my favorite ways to evaluate an actor, in a genre such as this, is if he or she looks like they are having fun. And, Sethi definitely showed that he was having fun bringing this story to live-action cinema.

One of the reasons I was disappointed with the remake of Cinderella is that I missed the magic of the timeless music. Realizing that this was the first attempt to remake an animated classic (not a reimagination as is the case with Maleficent), it is entirely possible that Disney decided to make sure the next remake included the core of what made the animated version so beloved. And you will definitely find echoes of the original Jungle Book in this live action film. Most of the characters you remember from the original are also reprising their respective roles. Some of the roles are modified to either be more or less prominent, but it’s all very effective in building the story. One of the characters that is not as prominent in this version is the bola constrictor Kaa (Scarlet Johansson). But, in the relatively short amount of screen time, she delivers an exceptional performance, inclusive of the hypnotism, and through her interaction with Mowgli, Kaa reveals his backstory that adds to why Shere Kahn has vowed vengeance on his life. Just like in the original, King Luis (Christopher Walken) want to be just like Mowgli and possess the red flower.

There are certain elements of the original that are not included in the live-action version, but they are elements that did not fit in the world Favreau created for this film. Suffice it to say, I do not think that you will greatly miss those parts of the original because this Jungle Book holds onto the original magic and brings it into 21st century cinema. What about the talking animals??? Like with many movies, I did not read up on this one too much because I wanted to be surprised. Needless to say, I did not look up the voice actors so I was not prepared for the animals to speak. When Bagheera first began to speak, I was definitely caught off guard. However, I quickly accepted that the articulating mouths on the animals speaking perfectly good English in the jungles of India were as natural as the luscious green trees and crystal clear water or as natural as Mowgli’s ability to communicate with nearly every creature. The UN must have implanted Mowgli and his friends with those instant translator devices. But, because of the quality of the production, the adherence to the Disney magic that made the original memorable, and the solid writing, I was more than willing to engage in the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie to its fullest extent.

If you enjoyed the music, characters, and story in the original, then you are definitely going to enjoy this live-action remake. I am excited to see that the essence of the original animated classic is alive and well in this film. I hope this is what we are to expect from the next live-action adaptation of a Disney animated classic.