When the Harry Potter film franchise ended with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows back in 2011, a lot of fans still weren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Although many had bid the Boy Who Lived farewell already in the pages of the final novel of the series, it seemed their appetite for further escapades set in the Wizarding World was far from satisfied.
In the years since then, creator JK Rowling has released a few tiny morsels that served to only feed this hunger – a tantalising opening chapter for a non-existent prequel novel and The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of related fairy tales, both came out in 2009. But it wasn’t until this year that Potterheads hanging out for a new, fully-fledged adventure were properly rewarded.
The first of these was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the two-part stage show epic that continued (and concluded?) Harry’s story. The second was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first film in a new spin-off series, which – despite being set 70 years in the series’ past – represents a bright, surprisingly fresh new future for the franchise overall.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set in 1920s New York City, and introduces us to wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a new arrival from the UK. Scamander is a magizoologist – think zoologist, only for magical creatures – and carries an enchanted suitcase brimming with the fantastic beasts of the title.
After a chance encounter with non-magical would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) leads to Newt’s magical menagerie breaking loose, he attracts the attention of recently demoted magical law enforcement agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Together, this unlikely trio – along with Tina’s sweet-natured, telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) – find themselves on a mission to recapture the creatures before any harm is caused.
However, Newt’s outlandish pets aren’t the real threat here. A conspiracy is brewing between the enigmatic Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), and troubled youth Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) which threatens not only the lives of everyone in the city, but also the exposure of the Wizarding community the world over…
Fantastic Beasts marks JK Rowling’s screenwriting debut, and the end result is typically spellbinding (sorry), if a little languid at times – not surprising, given her grounding as a novelist.
Still, those worried that Rowling wouldn’t be able to spin a satisfying yarn out of the original source material – essentially a novelty textbook – can rest easy: Fantastic Beasts is actually one of the better constructed blockbuster films released in what has otherwise been a mostly disappointing year. In a lot of ways, the script encapsulates Rowling’s original series as a whole: it starts off charming, whimsical, and fun, before gradually morphing into something dark and troubling, but also disarmingly poetic, too.
Ultimately, though, the best aspect of Fantastic Beasts’ story is its new cast of characters. Shifting focus from inexperienced school kids to accomplished adults was a risky move, but a smart one, as it breathes new life into a franchise that has by now firmly covered the coming of age angle. Even smarter is the choice to make one of the lead characters a regular human. Jacob not only provides a counterpoint to the often-negative portrayal of humankind in the series but also gives the audience someone we can identify with and who shares our wonder (and constant need for more information!).
Another thing Rowling’s screenplay does well is integrating plot points relevant to the wider plot of both the Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter series into a self-contained narrative. When you compare how well Rowling weaves in the rise of overarching baddie Grindelwald into this flick with how much Peter Jackson and his team struggled to seamlessly slot a similar plotline into The Hobbit trilogy, you really get a sense of just how big a rabbit Rowling has pulled out of her hat (again, sorry).
Whether this balancing act will continue in the film’s sequels remains to be seen – Grindelwald and his frenemy Dumbledore seem destined to dominate future Fantastic Beasts outings at the expense of Newt and friends. But for now, it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s more focused on telling its own story and not setting up future outings.
That’s not to say that the Fantastic Beasts has the perfect screenplay. As hinted at before, the pacing of the film feels a little off, and we probably encounter one fantastic beast too many. Indeed, by the time we’ve reached the last of these admittedly entertaining set pieces, we’re already much more invested in the Graves and Credence plot thread to care about anything.
And when the plot does finally shift in this direction, we’re served up a finale that seems paradoxically rushed and protracted, with certain major revelations glossed over in favour of lengthy (and repeated) farewells to our main characters.
Still, if Fantastic Beasts scores a grade of “Exceeds Expectations” in the script department, as an exercise in world-building, it earns an unqualified “Outstanding” mark.
The production design and visual effects teams have lavishly recreated the New York City of the era, and this – plus the many stunning new creatures big and small we meet – makes for the most enchanting and jaw-dropping visit to the Wizarding World since our first trip to Diagon Alley. It’s all beautifully shot by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who – supported by James Newton Howard’s 1920s-inspired score – succeeds in taking us back to a living, breathing place, rather than a sepia-toned memory.
Yet in a film like this, it’s the performances that sell the magic more than anything else, and director David Yates (a veteran of the franchise) ensures that Fantastic Beasts is no slouch in this department, either. Redmayne proves a good fit for social misfit Scamander, a character more comfortable around potentially dangerous animals than he is fellow humans. As portrayed by Redmayne, Newt is essentially the Wizarding World’s David Attenborough: equal parts academic and unlikely adventurer, and quietly yet deeply passionate about nurturing the creatures in his care.
Watterson is equally up to the job as Tina, embodying the strength, competence and compassion of a woman dedicated to fighting for what she believes is right. Her chemistry with Redmayne is genuine and affecting, both outsiders with an overlooked capacity for bravery, kindness, and love – qualities that lie at the core of Rowling’s storytelling ethos.
But if there’s a true standout among the cast, it’s Fogler as Jacob. Given a part that could easily have been overplayed, Fogler manages to land his laughs without ever becoming a one-note “portly sidekick”, and convinces as an ordinary schlub who wants to do something extraordinary with his life, which allows him to greet the Wizarding World not with fear, but wonder and joy.
This wonder and joy carries over to Fantastic Beasts‘ simple yet powerful overall message: that we all need to appreciate people and animals that are different and misunderstood. Spotlighting the overlooked members of our society has always been a theme of the Harry Potter franchise, but rarely has it landed harder. If Fantastic Beasts leaves audience members reconsidering whether they should reach out to a misfit like Credence, show respect to a strong woman like Tina or take a chance on a dreamer like Jacob, then arguably, that’s the most worthwhile aspect of the whole $180 million endeavour.
In spite of the high levels of anticipation and anxiety surrounding Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, this spin-off outing soars as both a return to, and revival of, the Harry Potter franchise. Buoyed by a solid script, confident direction, strong performances and breathtaking visuals, the film works both as a standalone adventure and the first step in an epic new journey back into a world we all know and love.