Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 2016.
Directed by David Yates.
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Zoe Kravitz and Johnny Depp.
New York, 1926. British wizard Newt Scamander arrives with his magical suitcase filled with fantastic beasts. In his attempt to prevent them escaping, he becomes embroiled in the American wizarding world as dark forces threaten to destroy the city…
So this was inevitable, wasn’t it? The Harry Potter Cinematic Universe. We’re maybe five to ten years away from Cursed Child being adapted from the stage (mark my words, it’ll happen), so Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the stop gap before the boy who lived returns as an adult who, err, lived a bit more. To be fair, it’s not necessarily just a cynical financial move – J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse is rich with detail and secret history, with lots of prequel options on the table that would make exciting stories, plus the very title of this picture is a fictional book within the original Harry Potter saga, with Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander a legendary author and adventurer from the early 20th century. It’s a natural and effective in-universe development and, thankfully, with Rowling behind the typewriter, Steve Kloves producing and David Yates in the director’s chair, all the key Potter personnel are present to make this a smooth transition that feels part of an already established universe.
It’s not, however, as good as the boy wizard’s best adventures. Much like Doctor Strange recently, the potential exists for a much stronger sequel, given this is a picture laden with the burden of establishing not just a new main character, but an entirely different version of the world of Muggles, wizards & Hogwarts than we’re used to. Muggles are now ‘No-Mags’ in the United States–the story being set in 1920’s New York–while Hogwarts is ‘the other’ wizarding school across the pond, which must seem rather quaint if seen through Scamander’s bumbling prism.
Redmayne underplays Newt in many respects as almost a proto-Doctor from Doctor Who; a soft-spoken, slightly awkwardly, kindly wizard soul more interested in the care & preservation of the eponymous fantastic beasts than battles between good and evil. That makes him charming in one respect but limp in another, needing Katherine Waterson’s plucky, down on her luck Tina Goldstein–a disgraced American witch–to give him the agency to fight when called upon to stop the dark forces who come to threaten the city ultimately. Pacing doesn’t help Redmayne or Newt, with Rowling’s script taking a small age to go anywhere as she revels in exploring the fantastic beasts without feeling she needs to explore the plot.
A case in point is Dan Fogler’s portly no-mag Kowalski, an aspiring bakery owner who becomes embroiled in Newt’s adventures upon arrival in New York by pure chance; he’s meant to act as our prism to enter the magical world kept from human eyes but, while an amiable character, he ends up becoming an albatross around the script’s neck to an extent. There’s only so much of Newt & Kowalski chasing mischievous CGI gribblies around you can take before wanting to shout “get on with it!”, and the first half just takes forever to layer in the interesting main threat – a mixture of Samantha Morton as a staunch anti-wizard matriarch, a damaged young child full of rage, and Colin Farrell’s slippery wizard agent Graves.
Jon Voight is wasted as a William Randolph Hearst-esque newspaper magnate with political ambitions too, in a sub-plot which for all the world smacks of teeing up one character in particular for the sequel. There’s a fair bit of that here, with Rowling’s script having one eye not just on layering in references to her magnum opus but also establishing key points future films can leap off from. It’s not enough to damage this film but equally her writing doesn’t leap off the page, and it’s only really the final third when everything comes into focus that the picture takes off. By the end, you’ll care about Newt & co, but blimey it takes a while unless you’re a Potter obsessive lapping up the detail.
Ultimately it feels like a very safe prequel, perfectly slotting into the overarching universe. David Yates does a perfectly serviceable job directing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, much like he did with the last few Harry Potter films, with plenty of nice period detail, production design and on the whole good CGI, but he’s not exactly a master of teasing out incredible performances and, great an author she may be, J.K. Rowling is wanting as a screenwriter on evidence of this.
It’s a nice, warm-hearted film with a lot to like, and Potter-nerds will absolutely soak it all in with glee, but as a piece of cinema it’s merely a solid piece of entertainment which doesn’t reinvent any wheels. Once again, the sequel will be better. Calling it now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★