I don’t think I’m dreaming…I ain’t got the brains to make this up.
J.K. Rowling’s took the world by storm with her fantastical vision of Hogwarts and a magical world that we all desperately longed to live in. In fact, the Harry Potter series was so good and so iconic that I was more than a little skeptical about doing a prequel series, that might tarnish the beloved series as The Hobbit prequels only seemed to diminish the grander of Lord of the Rings. Or how The Phantom Menace utterly desecrated Star Wars.
Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston
Thankfully my fears proved groundless. Fantastic Beasts directed by David Yates, who did a number of the Harry Potter films, and set in New York City 70 years before Harry receives that letter from Hogwarts, manages to fit perfectly within the magical world we’ve seen before while paving utterly new ground. Newt Scamander (a rumpled and floppy haired Eddie Redmayne) has come to America on steamer ship to continue his study and collection of magical creatures, who all live in a suitcase.
Unfortunately, a mishap with Muggle/NoMaj Kowalkski (Dan Fogler in a nuanced and affecting performance) means the suitcase goes missing and some of the creatures are set loose, earning him the ire of recently demoted aurora, a dark wizard catcher, Tina (Katherine Waterston of Steve Jobs and Inherent Vice). Moreover there’s an anti-witch campaign being sponsored by Mary Lou Barebone (a terrifying turn by Samantha Morton).
Needless to say, the visuals are spectacular. The 20’s setting only adds to the feeling of enchantment as Kowalski and the audience see a whole new universe unfold before our eyes. Without giving too much away, what you see inside Mr. Scamander’s suitcase actually manages to hold its own against Hogwarts castle in the sense of the wonder and delight it elicits. But the film doesn’t just create some truly fabulous new CGI creatures but a wonderful tapestry of new characters and new motifs.
Colin Farrell and Erza Miller
Eddie Redmayne isn’t just adorably rumpled as Newt, he also showcases an incredible capacity for physical comedy in such moments where he tries to imitate the mating behavior of an Erumpent. (Trust me-you have to be there.) Colin Farrell is looking fitter and trimmer than we’ve seen him in years as the sinister official Graves. Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is compelling as Mary Lou Barebone’s troubled adopted son, Credence.
The biggest surprise though, is singer-songwriter Alison Sudol making her film debut. As Tina’s flirty, mind-reading sister, Queenie, Sudol steals every scene she’s in and her romance with Fogler’s Kowalski is surprisingly poignant and sweet.
There are other elements too, that not only make Fantastic Beasts a delightful film in its own right but help set up another great franchise. In the Harry Potter films, muggles never played much of a role except for the odious Dursley’s who only appeared at the beginning anyway. Here, the whole storyline revolves around how wizards and non-wizards exist side by side with one another and the inevitable tensions and difficulties that may ensue. But there’s also a chance for new connections as well. Fantastic Beasts is a fable not only about natural conservation but also a story of bigotry, repression, and the need for tolerance. And in these times, that lesson seems more vital than ever.
Top photo: Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures
There have been a lot of films about Tarzan and his adventures in the jungle, dating all the way back to the 1910s. We’ve always been fascinated with stories of humans in a simpler, more instinctual setting (see The Jungle Book as an example), and our relationship to gorillas, apes and other animals works as a study of the human psyche and adaptability. The Legend of Tarzan is unfortunately less about any of the aforementioned and more about the thrill, minus any of the depth. It’s not as bad as one would think, but it is disappointing.
In 1884, King Leopold of Belgium has taken over the Congo, plundering the African country for its vast riches. Dr. Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects that the king, now overextended and in debt, is using slave workers to cut his costs. Enter typical bad guy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), sent on a mission by the king to strike an accord with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that will allow for the mining of diamonds. There’s just one thing Rom has to do before Mbonga agrees: bring back to the Congo the chief’s mortal enemy, Tarzan.
Easier said than done. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), has reclaimed his heritage and birth name – John Clayton III – and for the past eight years has been living a civilized life in England with his wife, Jane, (Margot Robbie). While John doesn’t fall for Rom’s trap to lure him back, Dr. Williams puts forth a more convincing argument – to investigate what’s happening with King Leopold and his unjust mining expeditions. And so ensues the adventure that will find Tarzan returning to his original home to seek justice.
The film tries to manage so much that it mishandles most of the story lines, culminating in underdeveloped plots and characters. Flashing back to Tarzan’s time with the gorillas doesn’t have much effect. Director David Yates attempts to bring Tarzan into the 21st century, setting him up to be a hero who confronts real-world events. The story becomes less about Tarzan and his struggles to find a place in society after his upbringing in the jungle, which would have been far more interesting to watch. Instead, it becomes the usual hero/villain story and one that’s underwhelming at best.
Christoph Waltz’s character is frankly a bit on the dull side. Waltz can sell anything, but over time his characters, all of which are villainous to some capacity, have begun to blend together. The film makes a show of painting him as a dangerous man, but in order to retain a PG-13 rating, he’s never shown to be lethal. (Surely his obsession with Jane could have crossed into more disturbing territory.)
Although I love Samuel L. Jackson on any given day, his role here seems misplaced, and for a while, it’s as if Yates wanted to turn The Legend of Tarzan into a duo adventure, with Jackson working as comic relief and Skarsgård being the serious one who doesn’t seem as into the partnership. Robbie spends three-fourths of the movie being a damsel in distress. The film would have fared better if it had allowed Robbie and Skarsgård to appropriately partner up for the jungle adventure.
The adventure aspect of the film is fun, with the jungle action sequences full of exhilarating moments. The darker tone to the film is meant to portray the seriousness of the plot, asking us to take the film more seriously than is called for. Ultimately, The Legend of Tarzan is adventurous and has some moments of intensity, but it simply tries to be too much at once. Tarzan as a savior doesn’t really work in the way that Yates probably envisioned and the combination of villainous politics and jungle adventure strikes a strange chord. In trying to make Tarzan more of a hero, it took away from all of the more humanistic struggles the film could have explored instead.
The Legend of Tarzan opens nationwide July 1, 2016.