Five years after cinema audiences finally bid farewell to the Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling unleashes a fresh story from her wizarding world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Can an all new story, set in a new country and starring an all new, and decidedly older, faces, recapture the “magic” of the original series?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a book mentioned in passing in the Harry Potter series. A textbook. Thankfully, J.K. Rowling, in her first role as a screenwriter, focuses on the book’s author rather than the textbook itself in this highly enjoyable film.
New York, New York!
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has picked a rotten time to visit New York. The magizoolist (one who studies magical creatures) has arrived in “the big apple” at the same time that a magical creature has started wreaking havoc on the local population. This puts the city’s wizarding citizenry at risk of being exposed to the city’s blissfully ignorant humans, also known as or No-Maj’s (or muggles). That he is on a mysterious personal mission, with an enchanted suitcase full of similarly magical creatures, a suitcase with a lock that has a nasty habit of popping open at inopportune moments, would make it seem that he is destined for trouble. When he crosses paths with the No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who happens top have a very similar looking suitcase, that problem that becomes a certainty.
Despite the obvious setup, where magical and non-magical suitcases trade places, “Fantastic Beasts” has far much more going on than just a simple fetch quest.
Gotta catch em all!
Woven through Scamander’s search for his missing creatures are Aurors (dark magic police) and authorities trying to handle the threat to the city. There’s also a disgraced auror Trina (Katherine Waterston), who knows something’s up with Scamander; her bubbly sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who just wants to help and Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller’s “Second-Salemers”, No-Maj’s who suspect there are wizards among them.
The film engages in its own world building and ties nicely back into Harry Potter lore, but it manages to do so without becoming plodding or dull. Rowling may have stumbled slightly with her recent world building, but thankfully the film itself rarely suffers from the kind of misstep she encountered with Native American culture.
It’s a kind of Magic
Dan Fogler shoulders the majority of the burden of keeping the proceedings light and moving. Replacing Daniel Radcliffe as the audience’s surrogate, he provides many most of the laughs as he reacts with humour and awe to the magic of full grown wizards at the height of their powers. So too do the “Fantastic Beasts” themselves, with most appearing as a mix of real world and otherworldly creatures. Some are more humorous than dangerous, like the coin obsessed niffler, but others such as the rhino-like erumpent, need to be handled with extreme care. All are in jeopardy in a city that has outlawed breeding magical creatures.
Redmayne continues the shy, nervous shtick that brought him to prominence (which he wholeheartedly abandoned in Jupiter Ascending) but he has some standout moments in the film. A mock “mating” scene is a delight, but neither his character nor he has to carry the whole movie on his own. The aforementioned Fogler along with Waterston and Sudol provide ample support in the form of Scamander’s very own “scooby gang”, and Colin Farrell provides an enigmatic presence as Auror Percival Graves.
A fresh perspective
While a colleague compared the muddle of story-lines, their required set-ups and payoffs to Spider-man 3 (!!), I found Fantastic Beasts to be hugely enjoyable, and I say this as someone who enjoyed the Harry Potter movies but was never bowled over by them. Seeing adult wizards using their magic in simple everyday tasks such as making a meal, along with how they, as a society deal with No-Maj’s/Muggles is never boring, even if wizard society stills can seem a little backwards and draconian.
Director David Yates, who also helmed the last four Harry Potter brings it all to the screen with aplomb, realising the period beautifully and bringing the various creatures to vivid life. Finally seeing what’s inside Scamander’s suitcase is a highlight, but the visuals are excellent throughout even if it’s the actors that hold the whole enterprise together.
Four More Fantastic Beasts?
With news that a further four films in the series are planned, there is quite a bit of setting up to be had (some characters only seem to appear so they can be present in later films) but there are also welcome ties to characters mentioned prominently in the Deathly Hallows. Even some slightly disappointing stunt casting at the film’s climax (don’t worry it’s not it’s not Dumbledore) can’t quite dim the film’s charm.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a welcome return to the world of Harry Potter, with a new adventure and a fresh perspective. Four more movies may seem like overkill, but if Yates and Rowling can match the quality of this instalment, then more entries will be very much appreciated.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Johnny Depp.
Official Site: here.