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 already bid the Boy Who Lived farewell once before in the pages of the final novel of the series, it seemed that 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 of these was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first film in a new spin-off franchise, which – despite being set 70 years in the series’ past – looks set to ensure the future popularity of the franchise.
Fantastic Beasts takes place 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 brings with him a suitcase containing the fantastic beasts of the title.
After a chance encounter with ordinary human (or “No-Maj” as Muggles are called here) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) leads to his magical menagerie breaking loose, Newt attracts the attention of recently demoted magical law enforcement agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and together the 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, the true danger at hand is not Newt’s outlandish pets, but rather a dark conspiracy forming between Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and troubled youth Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) – member of anti-magic group The Second Salemers – which revolves around a terrifying force, and which threatens not only the lives of everyone in the city, but also the exposure of the Wizarding community the world over…
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them marks JK Rowling’s screenwriting debut, and the end result is typically spellbinding (sorry…), if a little languid at times, given her grounding as a novelist. Those worried that Rowling wouldn’t be able to spin a satisfying yarn out of the original source material – essentially a novelty text book – 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 that is at times dark and troubling, but also disarmingly poetic, too.
Easily the best aspect of Fantastic Beasts’ story is its new cast of characters, and the decision to change focus from inexperienced school kids to experienced adults was 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 Muggle, with Jacob not only providing a counterpoint to the often-negative portrayal of humankind in the series, but also giving the audience someone we can identify with and who shares our wonder (not to mention providing someone to ask questions as we think them).
Another thing Rowling’s screenplay does well is integrate plot points relevant to the wider plot of both the Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter series into a self-contained narrative. Indeed, when you compare how well Rowling has woven into the plot the growing threat of dark wizard Grindelwald 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 here (sorry again…).
Whether or not this balancing act will continue to be so expertly handled in the film’s forthcoming sequels remains to be seen – and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Grindelwald and his frenemy Dumbledore will come to dominate future Fantastic Beasts outings at the expense of screentime for Newt and friends – but for now, it’s refreshing to enjoy a movie that’s more concerned with the story at hand than it is with what is yet to come.
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. By the time we’ve reached the last of these admittedly entertaining set pieces, we’re already much more interested in the triple threat of the New Salem gang, Graves and Credence, and the mysterious force wreaking havoc in New York to care.
When the plot does finally shift its focus in this direction, we’re then served up a finale that seems paradoxically rushed and protracted, with certain revelations almost glossed over in favour of lengthy (and repeated) farewells to our main characters – although, to be fair, we have become quite fond of them by this point, which makes this only a minor quibble.
And speaking of minor quibbles, there will surely be plenty of these from hardcore fans of the wider series – especially with regards to the outcome of film’s final showdown and whether it fits with the series’ previously established timelines – although Rowling is too clever a storyteller not to address these down the line.
Still, if the film scores a grade of “Exceeds Expectations” in the script department, as an exercise in world building, it earns an unqualified “Outstanding” mark.
Working from Rowling’s words, the production design and visual effects teams have lavishly recreated the New York City of the era, and this – complemented by 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 also 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.
As is always the case, it’s still the performances that matter most though, and director David Yates – a veteran of the franchise having helmed the past few entries – 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 effecting, both outsiders with an overlooked capacity for bravery, kindness and love, qualities which lie at the core of Rowling’s ethos.
But if there’s a true standout amongst the cast, it’s probably 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, and who therefore greets the Wizarding World not with fear, but with wonder and joy.
As you’d expect from a film centred around magical creatures, Fantastic Beasts contains a strong environmental/animal preservation message – seriously, it will make you want to visit the zoo (or at the very least, catch up on Planet Earth). More importantly, however, is the film’s appreciation of things that are different and misunderstood.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
Take the Obscurus – the malignant manifestation of Credence’s repressed magical powers. All his young life, Credence has been labelled a freak by everyone – even his own adopted mother! – and this status as an outsider has left him hurting and dangerous.
If he’s a monster, he’s one that was made, not born – if he’d only been accepted for who he was (and what he can do), he wouldn’t be driven towards lashing out, as he does so spectacularly during Fantastic Beasts’ finale.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Newt can relate to Credence and hopes to save, rather than kill, the boy. After all, he’s an outsider himself, and can sympathise with other lifeforms – human or otherwise – that no one else can appreciate, and which he knows are not inherently dangerous if treated kindly and humanely.
Indeed, if given the chance, both Credence and Newt’s menagerie could actually be a powerful and productive addition to society. They can even be the hero of the story, as the Thunderbird proves when Newt sets it to work wiping the memories of the No-Maj community in order to keep the Wizarding World’s existence a secret.
This focus on the overlooked members of society – something that has always been at theme of the Harry Potter franchise, but never so much as here – has never been more important than right now, at time when it seems like our world is more divided than ever.
If Fantastic Beasts leaves audience members considering whether they want to 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 the whole $180M endeavour will have been worth every cent.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
In spite of the high levels of anticipation (and anxiety) surrounding it, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 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, as well as the first step in an epic new journey back into a world we all know and love.
That’s all from me – now it’s your turn to have your say! Agree? Disagree?