It’s almost been 15 years to the day since Harry Potter first arrived on the big screen. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was always guaranteed success thanks to J.K. Rowling’s novels already being a genuine worldwide phenomenon in 2001, so it’s always surprising quite how timid cinema’s first trip to Hogwarts really was. Ropey effects, wooden performances by the then unknown young leads, and a screenplay which barely served as the Cliff Notes to Rowling’s most straight forward book in the series left most audience members with a feeling of mere distraction rather than wonder.
Of course, the Potter series would become more substantial and better realized as the later, weightier films arrived but it’s still hard to view any of the Harry Potter films as anything other than either “quite good” or “not that great”. While many film series would love to have the security of publishing’s biggest success story ever as their source material, the Potter movies often felt constrained by their slavish nature to the novels and became more like companion pieces rather than stand-alone classics the Lord of Rings trilogy achieved around the same time.
So, with this return trip to J.K.’s wizarding world, it’s quite refreshing from the outset that it has no allegiance to a text adored by millions and can finally give us a genuinely cinematic take on the universe. And for the most part, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them thoroughly enjoys this liberty but by the time the credits roll, some will be questioning whether it should have been given the opportunity.
THE NEW WORLD
While its studio, Warner Brothers, has been desperate to remind everyone that Fantastic Beasts is set in the same world as Harry Potter’s adventures with its marketing blaring out John Williams’ iconic Potter theme whenever it could, the film feels very much like its own *ahem* ‘beast’. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander arriving in New York in 1926 carrying a rather busy sounding suitcase. It doesn’t take long for the beastly contents of said case to start causing chaos and puts Scamander in the middle of a farcical bank heist since one his pets has a fondness for shiny things.
During this scene, Scamander becomes entwined with both former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who wants to bring the monster hunter in for failing to ‘obliviate’ the memory of muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). And wouldn’t you know it, during all the confusion Scamander’s case was switched with Kowalski’s who then inadvertently lets out a few choice specimens to rampage around New York.
But all is not well for wizards and witches in the Big Apple as a movement called Second Salem has set its sights on outing and destroying all forms of sorcery and is trying to go mainstream via John Voight’s newspaper owner, Henry Shaw. This leads to the members of the MACUSA (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) being understandably tetchy and paranoid that a bumbling Englishman has unleashed magical beasts upon the city, potentially bringing their kind out into the open.
It’s in this opening act that Fantastic Beasts does a fine job of setting its stall as something far removed from goings on at Hogwarts and Diagon Alley. We quickly get the requisite “divided by a common language” moment as we learn that the far more blunt term “No-Maj” is what American sorcerers call Muggles and the historic setting of a booming New York is gorgeously realized. It’s a true transition in both era and location ably handled by director David Yates returning to the universe where he made his name with the last (and best) four Potter films.
After this, Fantastic Beasts is often a breathless mixture of chases and wonderment as more and more of the fantastical creatures are revealed. The effects are as imaginative and beautiful as one would expect from a production budget of $180 million, though they still have that slightly cartoon-like quality that the franchise has always preferred which does make it a little too easy to see the joins at times.
The cast also seems to be having a good time. Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is ostensibly Matt Smith’s Doctor Who with a touch of Asperger’s (unsurprisingly Matt Smith was initially considered for the role) and he plays off Fogler’s hapless Jacob Kowalski (our No-Maj surrogate for the trip) very nicely. Colin Farrel is admirably restrained as the sinister Auror, Percival Graves, but maybe he could have been let off the leash a little more as the film does struggle to find a true antagonist for the most part. Katherine Waterston’s sweet and well-meaning Tina is completely upstaged by her on-screen sister, Queenie (played alluringly by Allison Sudol), who can read minds but never actually seems to use this for anything genuinely purposeful; however, she genuinely adds some required charisma to proceedings and her love story with the sadsack Kowalski is adorably bittersweet.
Faring less well are John Voight’s Henry Shaw, for whom the entirety of his lines could be written on a post-it note (he’s somebody we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the planned sequels, methinks), and Samantha Morton’s cruel Mary Lou Barebone, the leader of Second Salem, who never gets a chance to do anything other than scowl about magic wands. There is also a sucker-punch of a cameo that gives much-needed weight to a rather obvious plot twist late in the day.
As pleasant as it is to watch the talented cast veer about the screen in ever-escalating scenes of peril and derring-do, all of them combined don’t have as much personality as a single snark from Snape or a comforting sigh from Dumbledore. The lack of familiar faces and setting a new narrative in motion was always going to be a challenge for J.K. working with a clean slate and it’s one she’s failed to rise to so far.
A BLESSING OR A CURSE?
The fact that Fantastic Beasts is written directly for the screen is definitely its greatest strength as scenes take their time to develop organically rather than feeling like a clutch of plot points that often left audiences feeling ‘harried’ in the previous Potter films. And it’s admirable that Rowling’s screenplay conforms to the disciplines of cinema in this regard but it’s disappointing it manages to suppress her natural talent for layered storytelling in the process.
In the Potter universe, there’s always a spell or potion for every situation and while it’s easy to wrangle spectacle from this, it’s much harder to wring any drama out of it. In the past, this was always provided by Harry & Co solving mysteries, finding a near constant stream of revelations and eliminating carefully placed red herrings which drove the plot forward. All of that is thin on ground this time around as the film is far more in love with its concepts and creatures than its characters or story. And while most of the set pieces go off without a hitch, it’s a struggle only mere hours after viewing to remember most of them (which is ironic given how the tale concludes).
Also, if this is to be a start of a new saga then the few loose ends Fantastic Beasts leaves dangling doesn’t really evoke much of a desire for continuation. Moving away from the serialized nature of Harry Potter does actually allow the film to stand alone but, at this point, it’s hard to see how the next installment is going to keep it company. Undoubtedly, though, Warner Brothers will find almost a billion reasons to keep going if Fantastic Beasts lives up to its money printing pedigree. It’s also fair to say that this is by far a more confident and assured rendering of Rowling’s world than we’ve seen on screen before and while that makes this an engaging 2 hours, there are already signs of conceit and complacency creeping in that the ever-earnest Potter films always kept at bay.
Basically, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them certainly fulfills its initial promise with its menagerie of wonderous animals but it needs to give us more than just that if this new series wants us to keep finding them.
‘FANTASTIC BEASTS’ IS AN ENTERTAINING HUNT BUT ITS SLIGHT NARRATIVE AND CHARACTERS COULD OBLIVIATE AUDIENCES’ MEMORIES BEFORE THE NEXT ONE ARRIVES.