It’s been five years since we bade farewell to Harry Potter and the world of magic that so many grew up with. J.K. Rowling and David Yates had crafted the perfect ending to a spectacular franchise with ‘Deathly Hallows- Part 2’ and it seemed that was that. ‘Harry Potter’ was over; it was time to move on. But we were wrong. Five years later, we have ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’.
While not a continuation of the ‘Harry Potter’ story, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is very much a part of its world. Taking its title from the in-universe book of the same name, the film follows the adventures of its author, Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. Arriving in 1920s New York at a time when dark forces threaten the exposure of American wizarding society, Scamander accidentally sets free his magical creatures and must find them before things escalate out of control.
There is actually a lot more to the plot than that, and as Rowling’s screenwriting debut, the level of complexity she manages to pull of with this story is utterly incredible, because the film’s script is what elevates it to something more than just an excuse to revisit the Wizarding World. ‘Fantastic Beasts’ more than stands on its own two feet and one can almost sense the glee Rowling had in writing it. Just like any of her novels, the characters bounce off the page, the plot twists and turns at a brisk pace, and the world feels alive. It is J.K. at her very best and a reminder that it is her talent that caused so many people to fall in love with this world in the first place.
A movie however, unlike a novel, requires many hands to craft and ‘Fantastic Beasts’ wouldn’t work as well as it does without its wonderful cast. I would place Redmayne just below Rowling as the second most important ingredient of the film. This guy can act! We knew this already thanks to his Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’ but this is the first time that Redmayne has had to carry a blockbuster on his shoulders, and he does not disappoint. Newt Scamander is the best part of ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and watching Redmayne makes you truly feel that he cares about these creatures and that he knows what is best for them.
Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a stern and down-to-earth witch and former Auror, juxtaposes well with Scamander’s awkward but charismatic character and the chemistry of the two propels the movie forward. Likewise, Dan Fogler imbues his character of Jacob Kowalski, a No-maj—the American term for muggle—who gets caught up in the wizarding world by accident courtesy of Newt, with a loveable naivety that almost allows him to steal the movie. It is through Kowalski’s eyes that we see this world; his giddy reactions to everything magical are a reflection of our own. And while on the topic of the cast performances, one could not forgo mentioning of Colin Farrell’s commanding portrayal of Percival Graves, the head of Magical Security at New York’s equivalent of the ministry of magic, MACUSA. Farrell plays love-to-hate so well here, his powerful presence making every one of his lines command attention.
While not all may agree, director David Yates, who directed the final four ‘Harry Potter’ films, is a natural fit for this world. He feels at home here, not least because he knows how to deftly handle the more adult, darker themes of the franchise, while balancing them every so often with a dash of lighter, visual comedy. ‘Fantastic Beasts’ carries the more mature themes of the later ‘Harry Potter’ films, and definitely maintains the darker tone, particularly visually. The key difference is that the comedy is much more of a focus throughout than in either ‘Deathly Hallows’ films, making it more akin to ‘Half-Blood Prince’ in the levity department. Regardless, most jokes hit the mark, with the audience in my showing laughing out loud several times. The dark elements, when they come, hit home too but it’s the light-hearted moments that make this movie memorable, and give it its own identity. I suppose Rowling deserves as much credit for that as Yates.
The only negative element that sticks out is the special effects. Some creatures are rendered with realism but there is an inconsistency with others, particularly humanoid creatures like goblins and elves. Considering how well the CGI was done in ‘Deathly Hallows- Part 2’ it’s surprising that some of the effects seem rushed here but they do little to distract from the excellent plot and characters. Other minor issues are with the at times bland colouring of the New York world, which works thematically to juxtapose with the colourful creatures but could have been toned up a bit. And while some references to the ‘Harry Potter’ world do feel a little forced—one in particular comes to mind—the rest of the little nods are quite well interwoven.
I had so much fun with ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. While it’s difficult to envisage four sequels, as is planned, as a standalone entry in the Wizarding World it shines. The cast is excellent, the beasts are fabulous and the script is, well, fantastic. It’s great to be back in this world.