Blu-ray Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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After eight gargantuanly successful Harry Potter films, Warner Bros. Pictures unleashed the first in a planned all-new Potter spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. One needn't be a true blue Potter aficionado to jump in with Beasts, though there are certainly Easter eggs for those steeped in Hogwarts lore. Potter creator J.K. Rowling's 2001 book of the same name served as the film's basis, but this time the author makes her debut as a screenwriter. The whole affair is as light (and empty) as a big bowl of meringue, but the endless parade of CG beasts is impressive eye candy at least.

Beasts brings the fantasy fun to America in the 1920s. The central character, a wizard and "magizoologist" named Newt Scamander, is played by Academy Award winner (Best Actor: The Theory of Everything) Eddie Redmayne, who brings to mind a variation on Doctor Who what with his slightly befuddled enthusiasm. In line with the Doctor Who analogy, Newt's companion, as it were, is No-Maj (that's American for Muggle, a person without magical capabilities) Jacob Kowalsk (Dan Fogler). Jacob is applying for a bank loan to start his own bakery when he first crosses Newt's path. Newt also has a TARDIS-like suitcase, which Jacob is allowed inside. The main theme is Newt's need to return endangered magical animals to their natural, otherworldly habitats. Awestruck Jacob gives us someone to relate to as we watch Newt go about his work. 

Fantastic Beasts 3.jpg Meanwhile, Newt finds himself running afoul of the anti-wizard governmental organization Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) works for MACUSA and apprehends Newt under the charge of being an unregistered wizard. But she and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) prove to be sympathetic to Newt. Antagonist Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) also works for MACUSA as Director of Magical Security. Some folks want to eradicate wizards much like those dastardly types in the X-Men movies for wanting to wipe out mutantkind. They're different and as such they are to be feared. 
Fantastic beasts 2.jpg There's lots of lingo to learn in the sprawling Fantastic Beasts and judging by the $812 million worldwide box office plenty of people are willing to learn. I'll admit, this kind of fantasy stuff makes my eyes glaze over. While Beasts may not require detailed knowledge of the Harry Potter-verse, it will definitely play much better to those who like memorizing terminology and the names of fantasy species. The effects are impressive, but no more or less so than your average mega-budget production. 

There's a lot of plot crammed into these 133 minutes, but director David Yates (who helmed the final four Potter films) does little make any of it mean anything. Folks who obsess over world-building in their film franchises will have plenty to pore over here, since Yates and Rowling are setting up a series that is planned to span four additional films.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has rocked the house with the Fantastic Beasts Blu-ray. Philippe Rousselot's cinematography, which highlights the Oscar-nominated production design and Oscar-winning costumes, and the innumerable effects shots all look sterling. Audio is offered as a choice (much like Warner's recent Live By Night) between Dolby Atmos (defaults to Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for those without Atmos capability) and DTS-HD MA 5.1 (would've been better as 7.1). 
rsz_fantastic_beasts_bd.jpg Lots of special features adorn this edition, including 15 minutes of deleted scenes, five character profile featurettes (five minutes each), seven creature-based mini-featurettes (20 minutes total), six production design segments (about 35 minutes total), and a 15-minute "Before Harry Potter" overview of the "new era of magic."

If they continue to make money, there's four more of these to go. Technically dazzling, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is distressingly heartless. If it looks like product and feels like product, that's probably what it is. No, it needn't be high art. But even popcorn entertainment can be infused with soul. Maybe they'll improve and deepen it next time.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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