With the Harry Potter series firmly established as one of the most successful film franchises in history, it was inevitable that Warner Bros. would find some way to keep their valuable property going. However, while Harry’s story is still being explored in other forms, the team behind the films have turned their attention to the wider world of witchcraft and wizardry with ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. Written by J.K. Rowling herself, the film takes a passing reference from the Potter stories and expands on it and the universe she created, but is this an expansion we really needed?
Set in 1926 New York, the film follows the misadventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard fascinated with magical creatures and currently writing a textbook on the subject. He arrives in the city on secret business, but chaos ensues when some of the creatures in his suitcase escape. With the help of ex-Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and hapless no-maj (the U.S. term for muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), he tries to capture them all before they cause too much damage, all the while skirting growing political unrest between the magic and non-magic community driven by a dark force emerging from Europe.
Freed from the shackles of adapting a beloved text, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is a far more playful and invigorating film that you would expect. Its primary concern is to explore more of the world Rowling has created, and it's to the film’s advantage that we’re taken to a new time and place rather than retreading material and characters we’re familiar with. Because Rowling has written the screenplay herself, much of the socio-political commentary that runs through her books hasn’t been removed or watered down, making this representation of the wizarding world more detailed and authentic than anything in the Potter films. It balances her wicked sense of humour with genuinely chilling moments, especially relating to the Second Salemers, a group of fanatics led by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) hellbent on eradicating witches. Rowling uses the film to further explore her creation as an allegory for the marginalised and abused, and her hatred for bigotry and class discrimination.
SWITCH: 'FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM' TRAILER
‘Fantastic Beasts’ bubbles with subtext, but it also manages to be a rollicking good time. The characters aren’t the most developed of creations, but their relationships work and it's great seeing them run around 1920s New York hunting for creatures weird and wonderful. The set-pieces are always entertaining and cheeky and never feel out of place, mostly because (unlike the action sequences often shoehorned into the Potter films), they’re more intrinsically part of the storytelling. It’s also terrific seeing designer Stuart Craig continue to build on the world he designed in the original series and relishing the new details and possibilities that come with the new setting.
‘Fantastic Beasts’ is at its best when it leaves the Harry Potter films behind and carves a path of its own, and even when it does reference events and characters we know will become intrinsic to later events, they exist here as a history seperate from Harry’s story. However, one area where the film still holds onto its roots is with director David Yates, and this is the one intrinsic problem with the film. While Craig’s involvement is welcome and the rest of the team behind the film are new to the world, Yates approaches the film in much the same way he approached the Potter films he directed - a tone and rhythm that often seems out of place with this new material. The film is rhythmically problematic, often falling behind Rowling’s screenplay, allowing moments to linger for too long or muddying our understanding of the plot. It’s not that Yates does a bad job (it’s certainly a better film than his awful work on ‘The Legend of Tarzan’), but his direction does feel a bit stale and flat at times. While much of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ seems to be setting itself up to be a franchise in its own right, Yates doesn’t really exhibit the imagination in this film to do that.
Freed from the shackles of adapting a beloved text, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is a far more playful and invigorating film that you would expect.
These movies have never been about their performances, and while the ensemble does an admirable job, none of them particularly stand out. Redmayne isn’t really stretching his abilities here, sticking with the awkward foppishness we’ve seen from him before, but for once he seems to be having some fun with it. The chemistry between Redmayne, Fogler and Waterston works wonderfully, even if Waterston takes a while to pitch her gorgeous naturalism to match the melodrama of everyone else. There are a lot of periphery characters in the film, but they all feel like they’re part of setting up the narrative of this new series, and I suspect we’ll see more of them as the series develops.
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is a pleasant surprise amongst this never-ending parade of prequels, sequels and reboots by taking what it needs from its predecessor and striking out on its own. It’s funnier and cheekier than any of the Harry Potter films, and Rowling’s screenplay makes the film feel more accurate to the world she has created, freed from additions and subtractions that had made it feel disingenuous on film before. There’s a lot of potential in this first film for a franchise to come, especially as it starts to dabble in what we already know about the history of the wizarding world. However, with director David Yates sticking closely to what he's familiar with in his approach to the Potter films, it still feels like it has its foot too much in the past. Hopefully wherever the series goes next will get it properly on its feet and running in its own direction.