Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell
Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
As a Brit, I was of course required by law to read the Harry Potter books growing up and, like everyone else, I loved them. The epic adventure, the unforgettable characters, the profound morals, the thrills, the imagination, the sensation and the magic of it all; I loved every bit of it. Although I don’t think the film series as a whole truly captured the books in all their appeal and wonder (a few of them got close though, my favourite being Prisoner of Azkaban), they have undeniably left their impact in recent movie history and I suppose a spin-off was only a matter of time. J.K. Rowling is still very much a part of the franchise and has penned the screenplay to this feature, a move that could either have worked very well or very badly. On one hand Rowling is the mastermind behind this magical universe so who better to decide on its next direction? The same however can be said of George Lucas who ran his own franchise into the ground because nobody would dare tamper with his vision. Either way, I was very interested in seeing what the result would be.
The film takes us away from Hogwarts and transports us to New York in the Jazz Age, a decade of glamour and prosperity for the States, but also one of repression and intolerance. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived on a boat on his way to Arizona. In his suitcase are a host of diverse, magical creatures including the mischievous, platypus-like Niffler, which escapes and wreaks havoc in a bank. During the chaos Newt accidently swaps suitcases with a No-Maj (an American Muggle) aspiring baker called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While Newt is taken into custody by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted Auror, three creatures escape into the city and must be recaptured. Meanwhile Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) has emerged as a leading No-Maj voice against wizardry in light of the recent crimes of the infamous Gellert Grindelwald. Her abused son Credence (Ezra Miller) however has found a friend in Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking Auror who is searching for a mysterious creature that has caused great destruction around Manhattan. These two stories intersect as Newt discovers the nature of this creature and the truth of Graves’ intentions.
By taking such a drastic change in its setting from the familiar magical school in England to 1920s New York, much is gained but also lost by this film. It is a change that allows for a new exploration of Rowling’s world from a side that has been almost entirely untouched even by the books. This breakaway from the books also allows the film considerably more freedom with its characters and narrative than Harry Potter’s story ever allowed. The downside is that much of what we identified with Rowling’s universe is lost in the transition. It is admittedly difficult to define what exactly constitutes an identity that extends beyond character and setting except that we know it when we see it. It’s the reason why The Hobbit films, while reviving many familiar people and places, didn’t quite feel like The Lord of the Rings. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have to be Harry Potter, but it does have to feel like it. Does it succeed? Yes… to an extent. There is that sense of darkness and wonder that were defining traits of the Harry Potter series as well as some of the whimsy from the two Columbus films. But there is also some of that generic, artificial blockbuster action that I would associate with a superhero movie before I would with Rowling’s stories. How many movies have we seen by this point where a large city gets levelled by an unstoppable force of CGI? Enough for it to feel tired in this film.
Now, this isn’t to say that Fantastic Beasts is not an entertaining, enjoyable movie in its own right, because it is. It has a likeable protagonist in Newt Scamandar, an eccentric wizard with some tics and a sly grin that evoked memories of Matt Smith as The Doctor. Fogler shines as Jacob Kowalski, the comic-relief sidekick who manages to be more than a comic-relief sidekick. He is our Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) surrogate in this world of magic and, just like us when we were first introduced to Rowling’s universe, he falls in love. The Potterverse is one of those franchises that can have its pick of top-quality actors and Fantastic Beasts gets its fair sure, including a couple of big American stars. Amongst the strongest of these supporting performances are such names as Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Ron Perlman. There is also an ensemble of cartoon-like magical creatures (a little too cartoony in my opinion) that will delight little children to no end. The film is at its best when it just takes a moment to revel in the world it inhabits and to enjoy the wondrous things in it. The moment my interest waned was the climax when the film ceased to be its own unique thing and instead became another typical fantasy-action blockbuster. Not bad or dull, just routine.
David Yates, who directed four of the eight Harry Potter films, is very much the safe choice for this film and he delivers about what you’d expect. He and Rowling mercifully restrain themselves from DC levels of franchise building with only the odd reference to Dumbledore, a woman called Lestrange and a (rather obvious) plot twist near the end. The story for the most part is self-contained and easy to follow. There is some of the darkness that Harry Potter was known for as the strained relationship between the wizarding and No-Maj worlds arouse themes of prejudice and intolerance. Credence’s story is also quite grim as he seems to display hints of a magical nature (and perhaps a bit of affection for his confidante that many at the time might have regarded as intolerable) but is forced to suppress that side of himself for fear of being discovered by his puritanical mother. On balance with the cutesy scenes with the magical creatures however I don’t think there is much in this film that’ll scare kids. Fantastic Beasts is by all accounts a fun, enjoyable film. The climax was underwhelming and some characters were forgettable but I definitely had a good time. There were parts that made me laugh, there were one or two moving scenes, and there were moments of spectacle that struck my inner-child. Whether this film will overcome the shadow cast by Harry Potter is a question that only the future can answer.