Directed by: David Yates
Written by: JK Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne. Dan Fogler. Katherine Waterston. Allison Sudol. Colin Farrell. Ezra Miller. Samantha Morton. Jon Voight.
Running Time: 133 Mins
In the world of Harry Potter knowledge I’m not exactly a muggle, but I’m not a supreme magician either. If you put the sorting hat on me it would probably laugh at my indifference to the series and decide I should be part of the Hogwarts janitor team instead. I may not passionately love the films but I’ve seen and vaguely know most of the ins and outs, saying that I think I’ve used up half of my references already. Luckily this new film is mostly a different beast, feel free to not pardon the pun. The film itself is named after a text book used in J.K Rowling’s fictional universe, a book which Rowling published a real world version of for charity. The textbook is know by fans as a source of knowledge for wizards, including the bespectacled, boy who lived, Harry Potter. At the time this film is set though, the guide on Fantastic Beasts is still as unwritten as Potter’s future detention slips. We find the fictional author Newt Scamander taking the lead in this film, arriving in New York on his way to Arizona. So will this tale stand on its own two feet? Or will it make you want to obliviate it from memory?
Scamander encounters an anti-magic muggle movement and in the confusion loses a Niffler from his briefcase containing his precious beasts. The Niffler soft toy already selling out in the hearts and minds of fans in the cinema. Our hero’s briefcase is taken by lovable baker Jacob Kowalski and more of the magical animals soon break free just as Freddie Mercury aspired to do. Scamander is arrested by Tina Goldstein, a disgraced member of the ‘Auror’ who police the magical realm. Our main characters begin a hunt for the beasts and in doing so become embroiled in a gathering storm. Dark rumours swirl on the horizon of Gellert Grindleward an evil wizard who apparently makes Voldemort seem like Barney the dinosaur. Meanwhile an Obscurus haunts the streets of New York, known to be the deadly manifestation of hidden magic found in a child.
This is from the same shelf as Potter’s adventures but an altogether different flavour. Despite being a fun family fling this also doesn’t shy from more adult shades. The tensions between the magical and muggle worlds are clear, constant and saturated in fear. This creates a very real feeling of a tinder box, needing just another spark of misunderstanding to blow. Real world absolutes are mirrored somewhat in American wizarding polices governed by mistrust, outlawing magical beasts. Even outlawing friendship with a ‘No-Maj’, the equivalent of a Muggle. These tensions bring a reality to the world outside of Hogwarts that continues the darker trend of the later Potter films. There’s less use of wands and spells throughout as if the adults are less reliant on them and most of the strength seems to be based upon knowledge, particularly with Newt and his beast-managing techniques honed from experience. The sparing use of magic compared to the original series also emphasises the stealth tactics employed by magicians to hide their talents from the No-Maj community.
The cinematics are breathtaking, the setting and costumes are striking as the vastly different era yet again sets his film apart. The romance of this time matches the magical theme and the underground magical community has hints of prohibition. The pacing is patient and allows time to breathe but never boring, showing faith in its narrative. The script is sturdy and with adult themes such as the frankly brilliant Queenie reading Kowalksi’s predictably red blooded thoughts, probably catching out most males in the cinema at the same time. These elements and more combine like an alchemy recipe penned by Snape himself, producing a thoroughly fine and flamboyant family film. I enjoyed this film more than any of the Harry Potter chapters and found myself enchanted by the adventures of a bumbling writer in a foreign land, thrust onto a bigger picture he had no interest in.
The cast are fantastic. Eddie Redmayne is a superb lead, casting his charm spell on the audience as easily as Scamander tames his beasts. His is amazingly amiable and endearingly inept with his own species, his lack of social skills provide a heartwarming simplicity. Katherine Waterston is independently entertaining and with her own story thread. Dan Fogler is brilliant as a human anchor for us in this fantastical world and his developing connection with Queenie is genuinely touching and more convincing than it has any right to be. Alison Sudol as Queenie is a stand out and brings life to what could have been a throwaway cliché dissipating without much impact. Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton brings a contrasting intensity to their roles while Ezra Miller makes a convincing tortured soul in Credence Barebone, a name which kind of damns you to a sad life. Jon Voight is barely present and quite bland but this suits his part and should be seen as an investment for future interest.
The film isn’t perfect, there isn’t quite enough of the beasts as you would maybe hope. Also some of our heroes conveniently stumbling onto plot points in New York defies belief even in a land of magic, the big apple seems to shrink to suit the needs of our Scamander when he has to find something specific. A scene with Ron Perlman’s Gnarlack is also as pointless as Malfoy pretending he still has a healthy hairline, including an upset tingly our of character decision from Scamander that threatens to turn him disappointingly villainous. The Obscurus joins a modern new trend of being so terrifying he can’t be designed with any effort. A blurry mass of black he is like the scrawling of a disturbed child which may be the point but sadly seems more lazy than meaningful. The story line of Voight’s Henry Shaw Sr. and his family is an investment as previously stated, but can feel more like it gets in the way than teases future conflict.
Saying that, the film is still mostly fabulous in its design and most importantly it’s more entertaining than a practical joke kit from the Weasely brothers. The set pieces are largely brilliant, a trip inside the briefcase of Scamander lives up to expectations. The attempted captures in Central Park or in an attic with a teapot also provide the desired thrills. Twists are a little predictable but cleverly done and thought through so never disappointing. Kowalksi’s narrative endings will pull your heart strings in every which way like a malfunctioning golden snitch. Scamander using his beasts as his own alternative to magic gives him a quirky and independent edge, setting him apart and making the action more unique. The end is satisfying and real with consequences and promises alike, bittersweet and honest. Hints at Scamander’s past pains are tasteful and achingly deep in their subtlety.
This is a refreshingly grown up family film, one I would happily look forward to showing my future children as well as look forward to watching again myself. Instead of resting on its laurels this franchise has begun to fashion itself a new and very separate crown. A depth of lore and skillful execution made this my favourite venture into Rowling’s admittedly impressive world. Before I watched Harry’s adventures merely to see national acting treasures perform, in this chapter I feel involved and immensely invested.
Verdict: Conjuring up some cinematic magic, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ stands strongly and independently as an exciting and emotive inclusion in this world’s legacy. Careful storytelling is key to casting the spell, in this equally dark and jaunty adventure.