Save JJ Abrams and Star Wars: The Force Awakens I don’t think any director or film has had such a weight on their shoulders or such ardent fans to please. To say Fantastic Beasts had a lot to live up to would be an understatement. The Potter books and films have changed the world. Returning Potter Director David Yates had a task and a half on his hands, so too did JK Rowling who takes script writing reins here (and for the subsequent four installments).
And did they pull it off?
The familiar Potter soundtrack plays as the Warner Bros logo hovers forward through dark clouds… The opening sequence is slightly ambiguous, giving way to the familiar montage of Daily Prophet headlines about a dark wizard. But not the dark wizard we’re all familiar with. Grindelwald takes over bad-guy duties from Voldemort for this franchise and even though he doesn’t yet take centre stage, his menacing presence conjures some solid atmosphere.
Atmosphere is what David Yates does best, and the foreboding he brought to the final four Potter films is evident from the first few seconds of Fantastic Beasts. But Yates also brought style and awe to his Potter films and he doesn’t hold back on either with Fantastic Beasts. Every scene is rich in detail, most of which isn’t spotted until second or third viewings. The 1920’s New York setting is a big change from the epic landscapes and castle corridors of Hogwarts that we’re used to, but it’s just as compelling and makes Rowling’s world seem that much more real and sprawling.
Eddie Redmayne had a tough responsibility too, taking over protagonist duties from Harry, Ron and Hermione and having to carry what is essentially an origin story for the Fantasic Beasts series. Redmayne himself can’t be faulted. Newt Scamander is awkward, bumbling, avoiding eye contact and generally rubbing people up the wrong way, more Sherlock Holmes than Harry Potter. But at times Scamander doesn’t feel like the protagonist, mostly going along with what is happening rather than forwarding the plot. The other actors and their characters suffer the same, taking a step back so the world-building, plot and set-up can all be handled. The characters will be fleshed out in the next installment, but for now they’re not as compelling as Harry, Ron and Hermione. Where Rowling’s script does excel is in how contemporary it’s morals are. There are more than a few allusions to the divisions of today’s society, the prejudices and political turmoil and despite it’s period setting, Fantastic Beasts is never old-fashioned.
For all its awesome special effects and spectacle, slick directing and great acting, Fantastic Beasts is not perfect. Rowling’s script is sharp when it comes to dialogue, but a bit thin in story. The first film was always going to be more about set-up than story, and it is the case here. A slow first half and a slump in the middle throw the pacing off, and there is never a clear main plot to invest in. Gathering up the escaped Fantastic Beasts offers plenty of chances for great set pieces (Scamander’s imitation of a mating ritual, a chase sequence in a department store among a memorable dozen) but it isn’t strong enough to be the bones of a film. The various other sub-plots are interesting but, can at times feel all over the place and until the final, massively impressive, climax Fantastic Beasts is as scatterbrained as it’s main character.
But in that impressive climax, with a twist that I didn’t see coming and which I defy anyone to guess beforehand, and Yates’ pitch-perfect directing, the stunning CGI and photography, Fantastic Beasts does deliver a prequel worthy of the Potter films. Fans will be grinning at foreshadowings and at the mere joy of being back in the Wizarding World and newcomers may be a little confused but will find plenty of enjoyment.
Fantastic Beasts is not perfect, but neither were any of the Potter films. It had a tough task of setting up a world, story and characters, and overall… it pulled it off and promises great things for future installments.
Have you seen Fantastic Beasts yet? What did you think?
It’s the mark of a great author and a greater book when you’re reading it and forget about everything else. You forget where you are, that you’ve got homework to do, or it’s half past two in the morning and you’re still turning the pages. But you’re not really turning the pages; you’re in them, there in the mud with the characters, standing by them on the prow of a ship with the icy, salty wind on your face and your hand clutching the cold pommel of a sword. You don’t just read a Joe Abercrombie book, you live it. Sounds cheesy. But it’s the truth.
Half A King, the predecessor to Half the World, is one of my favourite books of all time, and in my top five books of 2014. It was packed with action, great characters, greater dialogue, humour, epic world building and some of the best, if not the best, high fantasy writing I’ve ever read. I wasn’t a great fan of high fantasy before Abercrombie brought us the Shattered Sea trilogy. High fantasy can be dense with detail and ever-shifting points of view. It can be overlong and rambling. But Half a King was the opposite. Faster paced than most thrillers, Half a King was a read-in-one-sitting book. So Abercrombie had a tough task on his hands delivering a worthy, and better, second novel.
And he’s done it. Half the World is a hundred pages longer than Half a king, but it’s still just as fast paced, still as gripping and well-written. This time around, Yarvi, the Half King of the first book’s title and the main character last time, is now a supporting character (though his motives shape the entire plot of the book). Thorn and Brand are the new protagonists and the POV is split equally between them. Both are great characters, and change a lot over the course of the novel. So much so that it feels as if years pass from page 1 to page 484. The supporting cast are just as well developed. Abercrombie’s trademark humour is evident on almost every page and in almost every character. There are characters to cheer on, hate, love, hate again. By the time page 484 arrived I felt like I knew the characters, had known them for years.
For a book that is almost 500 pages, it does not feel it. The pages fly past. There’s barely a moment to breathe, but when there is Abercrombie makes sure it’s not for long. Every chapter is filled with action or pace, danger and tension, or all four at once. The set pieces are tight and tense and so well-written it’s hard to believe. The world is vivid and real. It’s easy to taste the salt on the air, feel the cold, the clash of swords. Abercrombie describes teeth rattling as swords clang, and mud churning, and blood flying. You’re there, in the midst of battles and fights. The rain is on your face like it is on the characters’.
The pace races along to a tense finale that makes you hold your breath and shout encouragement to the characters. Again, the mark of a great author and book. And there’s no doubt Abercrombie is great and this sequel is too. With the third book also being released this year, I’ll be buying a copy faster than Thorn Bathu can draw her sword.
Epic. Highly, highly recommended. The best book of 2015 I’ve read so far, and one of my favourite books of all time. If you like Game of Thrones, or high fantasy, or even if you don’t, read this book.
Like the film’s titular hero, Peter Jackson’s adaption of the Hobbit was set upon an unpredictable path since its announcement. The project underwent several drafts and possible directors until Jackson stepped in and every fan breathed a huge sigh of relief. But not all were optimistic; some were outraged at the decision to split the slim ‘fairy story’ into three parts. Others were joyous in the knowledge that they would be able to return to Middle Earth three more times. Though one thing went unquestioned, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was always going to put backsides in cinema seats and get critics talking.
And so, has Jackson done it again? The answer is indisputable: he has.
The first few moments of An Unexpected Journey prompt a pleasant sense of déjà vu for fans, as the familiar rooms of Bag End fade into view alongside Howard Shore’s equally familiar score. “My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures,” so narrates Ian Holm and begins a recounting of his adventures. But thankfully Jackson doesn’t linger too long in the present, allotting Holm and a returning Elijah Wood’s Frodo only a few minutes screen time before introducing us to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. Another thing that is indisputable is how perfect Freeman is for the role, striding into Holm’s hairy oversized feet and instantly making Bilbo his own.
But Freeman doesn’t tarry in the squashy armchairs and well stocked parlour of Bag End for long before Gandalf shows up with a host of dwarves and the offer of an adventure.
As Jackson has said ever since he stepped back into Middle Earth, the Hobbit’s tone is lighter than the Ring’s trilogy. And the most clear indicator of this are the thirteen, or rather twelve (Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield is stern and angry: with good reason) merry dwarves who show up, invade Bilbo’s parlour and break into song. Despite the fact there are thirteen of them, Jackson doesn’t leave one or two in the shadows, they all have personalities and it’s hard not to smile when they’re on screen.
But make no mistake in thinking this is a children’s film as we, through brilliantly staged, brooding flashback, are shown just why Thorin is so angry and what Gandalf requires Bilbo for. The great dragon Smaug (shown only in brief glimpses and then only a flicker of a tail or stamp of dwarf crushing foot) attacks the Dwarf city of Erebor and claims the place and its heaving vaults of gold, as its own. And because hobbit’s can in Gandalf’s words, “pass unseen by most if they choose,” he wants Bilbo to be the dwarves ‘burglar’ and help them steal back their treasure and regain their homeland.
From this point on, Jackson pulls us away from the green hills of the Shire and into the sweeping plains and deep forests of Middle Earth. Again New Zealand is presented in all its glory as Tolkien’s world and what a backdrop it provides. Taking full advantage of his homeland’s landscapes, Jackson takes us along with the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf as they encounter Orcs, Goblins, Wargs and all other manner of creatures brought to stunning life by Weta workshop. It is these encounters that many critics have slated for being too episodic but how else could it have been done? It is a quest after all.
Weta have outdone themselves once again in the special effects department, presenting us with cities and creatures that are so masterfully rendered it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t real. But it is not the cities and creatures that truly show Weta’s superiority. Andy Serkis’s motion-captured Gollum is once again a triumph. Eerily realistic, Gollum meets with Bilbo in a cave deep in the Goblin mines where they have a game of riddles. It’s a brilliant scene, with Gollum’s schizophrenia masterfully played by Serkis and the tension expertly built by Jackson. The encounter drips with foreboding and suspense, not least for it is here that Bilbo first finds that eponymous ring.
After all the breath-taking battles with Middle Earth’s most gruesome inhabitants the film reaches its climax as the motley band of dwarves, hobbit and wizard face off Thorin’s enemy (introduced in another stirring flashback) the white Orc, Azog. But what is one final battle after so many dangers? The heroes triumph, escaping on Eagle back and we are shown a glimpse of the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, the dwarves’ homeland and destination. And in a crowd pleasing final scene we are treated with a brief, but no less tantalising scene as Smaug awakens.
In reflection, it cannot be denied that Jackson has delivered an engrossing journey back into Middle Earth. There are flaws, but they are few and far between. For those viewers who are not diehard fans, the battles may go on slightly too long and the scenes with Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast may seem arbitrary. But for those obsessed with Tolkien’s world, Jackson hit’s every note. This is a stirring, engrossing, masterfully scored film, and no mistake. Even the near three hour run time is a blessing, for as Gandalf the Grey so sagely says, “All good stories deserve embellishment.”