A very different and interesting re-entry to Harry Potter’s magical universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is fun, at times quite grimdark, and a welcome expansion of the cinematic world many will be excited to revisit.
It’s the 1920s, and in the world of wands and Hogwarts, proto-Voldemort Grindelwald (BIG SPOILER so I’m not saying) is terrorising the world. In New York City, magic zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives on mysterious business, but manages to lose some exotic creatures; incur the wrath of US wizarding government MACUSA through former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston); and bring ‘No-Maj/Muggle’ baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) into the situation. While they attempt to track down the animals, Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) investigates a destructive force attacking the city, as well as puritans Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and adopted child Credence (Ezra Miller), who lead an anti-witchcraft campaign.
For those sick of all things Potter, don’t bother – Potter fans however will enjoy the details and the immersion back into the world. The film feels much more akin to the prior series because it’s been written by J.K. Rowling, and with returning Potter director David Yates, she fills in another unexplored corner. The period US setting offers a clean break with Hogwarts, and I liked this diversion of tone, mood and setting, with the story threaded with typical twists, shocking about-faces and a lingering sense of doom, countered by moments of wonder. The title is fairly misleading as far as future intentions go, but is a great way to tie in the Comic Relief “textbook” and create a link through Newt, as well as offering said beasts.
The star among these is the Niffler, a small mole-like creature obsessed with hoarding shiny and expensive things, while the other creatures are interesting if not memorable. Newt’s magical case – essentially an animal sanctuary – is one excellent example of the film’s great effects, which build to a crescendo towards the end with magical battles amid a cleverly-recreated period New York. The storyline meanders between two sub-plots, making for some drastic and shocking shifts in tone, and I found this quite jarring, though when both start to intersect we get a stronger conclusion. It’s painfully clear which of the two is going to dominate the remainder of the five (!) films to come, but I hope the beasts and Newt are not sidelined, as they offered a more colourful flourish and a positive reminder of the magic.
The drab and almost metallic sheen of New York is enlivened at points by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, but there’s only so much you can do to make a film that largely uses green screen look less plastic and more realistic. I recall Yates’ Potter films looking just like this, and I know we’re back in time here, but would more colour hurt? I remember Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets being vibrant, and something about this world screams the need for colour. Yates’ direction of action and dramatic scenes is, however, excellent, and I feel he understands Rowling’s tonal shifts. Musically, James Newton Howard tries to mix the Jazz era and John William’s memorable themes, with some parts (Newt’s sanctuary) stronger than others, though the original themes are too much to live up to.
On the performance front, Redmayne’s is quirky and divisive – for my part, I enjoyed it because I saw the awkwardness and introversion he displays as his preference for animals over humans, but he opens up later on and shows a human side. Redmayne is good if stereotypically, almost Hugh Grant-level awkward English, but I liked that he moves from introverted (yet strongly-principled) to confident. Waterston was largely and disappointingly underused as the principled (and Newt-like) Tina, who seemed like a character lost in the edit, though hopefully she might reappear to more effect in future. Fogler steals the show for the most part because Jacob, as a ‘No-Maj’, is our cypher into the magical side of things, and he provides the film’s humour and heart as he barely contains his incredulity.
His scenes with Tina’s sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, are sweet and ridiculous (never a more improbable couple), Sudol’s achingly soft-spoken flapper girl featuring hidden depths, with her psychic ability fishing out uncomfortable truths. Farrell meanwhile has a difficult role to play, but Graves is eminently untrustworthy almost immediately, and the actor – usually underwhelming to say the least – brings sinister steel to a multifaceted character, particularly in uncomfortable scenes with Miller.
Morton and Miller’s creepy, puritan witch-hating mother/son are part of the darker subplot, with Morton’s seething hatred of witchcraft and mistreatment of her children making for some scenes that felt off and disturbing, while Miller – he of We Need To Talk About Kevin – is the embodiment of tightly-wound repression here. He’s one of the most interesting actors in the movie, creepy and tragic all at once, and caught between two manipulators. Of the rest, only Jon Voight and Ron Perlman make an impact in small appearances to stereotype (respectively a stern father figure and a monster). I’ve left it late, but the (very famous) actor playing Grindelwald is a spoiler best left seen onscreen. Suffice to say, maybe 10 years ago I would have agreed with the choice, but not now, and the reveal and Grindelwald’s look is not only disappointing but bodes ill for the next four films. It’s stunt-casting, and I wish they’d gone for somebody more interesting and less… this person. Let’s hope that the future casting of a younger Dumbledore holds more promise.
Essentially, you know before you go if you’re the right audience for Fantastic Beasts. Potter fans definitely need to see it – I’m confident most will enjoy it – but if you’re anti-Potter, it’s probably not a film you’ll have much engagement with. For those on the fence, the beasts, the setting and some of the actors are enough reason to give it a try.