There’s no denying that the Harry Potter franchise is highly regarded as one of the most acclaimed and adored film franchises of all time, each film a box office smash and adored by fans and critics alike. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we once again dive into J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, except this time it’s set in early ’20s America and has a whole new roster of characters. In some ways, this film is a prequel – yet it doesn’t fall into the same old trappings that can plague prequels by being incredibly fresh, thanks to Rowling breathing life back into that magical world. Starting out life as one of Harry’s textbooks at Hogwarts, the source text was a guide to the most unique magical creatures and written by the movie’s main protagonist Newt Scamander. This companion piece was basically a novella at best, yet like Apocalypse Now (which itself was based on a novella-sized source material), both David Yates (returning Potter director) and Rowling manage to map out a multi-layered narrative with two parallel storylines.
The first involves Newt teaming up with “No-Maj” and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, the uptight and struggling investigator Porpentina Goldstein and her cheery, delightful, mind-reading sister Queenie, to hunt the magical creatures that have escaped from his TARDIS-like suitcase (bigger on the inside!). The second involves the Wizarding World coming under fire from Mary Lou Barebone, a narrow-minded Christian No-Maj and the domineering leader of her “Second-Salamers”. Amongst her group is her abused adopted son, Credence, who is pressured by Percival Graves, the corrupt Director of Magical Security at MASCURA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), to locate a child that is the host of an “Obscurus”, a dark and destructive force.
Sometimes, these two narratives work simultaneously well, yet at other times not so much. This is due to one crucial problem: padding. This feels somewhat padded out at times in order to give way to huge exposition dumps and lots of introductions to characters that will play important parts in the next four films to come. It feels like this needed to be done in order to get the whole origin story element out of the way. This also hopefully means that both Yates and Rowling won’t feel the need to hold back when the sequels come around and will be able to delve into bigger and more intriguing matters. However, saying that, this film is undeniably better than the first two Harry Potter movies due to the fact that this movie does much less world-building and foreshadowing than those two films – plus the fact that this felt more like a proper movie, whereas the first two Potter movies felt more like a collection of moments.
This film also succeeds beautifully well in its construction and design work. Yates proves once again that he just completely understands this world, capturing the core essence of what makes the universe so beloved and special to so many people. Every period design is gorgeously detailed to every inch and the creature designs are unique and inventive, coming across as actual living, breathing creatures you’d probably want to own. The score composed by James Newton Howard is incredible, capturing the same tone and atmosphere of the Harry Potter movies – even the tiny sliver of the iconic Potter theme at the beginning was enough to get me excited. Plus, this movie doesn’t rely too heavily on previous knowledge of the Harry Potter movies, so you can go into this with fresh eyes and appreciate it as its own distinct entity.
Like with Harry, Ron and Hermione, Rowling manages to build a great character dynamic centered on the core four, including the budding attraction between Newt and Porpentina as well as the gentle romance between Jacob and Queenie. Eddie Redmayne is likeable and charming as Newt, capturing the vulnerability and quirkiness required – plus his performance and attire definitely has echoes of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Katherine Waterston does an impressive job as Porpentina, also nailing the character’s underlying vulnerability while managing to convey a calm and cool allure as a means of hiding her inner emotions.
Jacob is really the audience’s anchor into this world and Dan Fogler adds much to the role, bringing real comic relief and genuine warmth, without becoming grating or annoying. As Queenie, Allison Sudol was an absolute delight, being completely warm, charming, smiling and always being on top of things with a hopeful and optimistic attitude. Ezra Miller brings a dynamic versatility to the role of Credence, whilst Samantha Morton was truly phenomenal as the wicked Mary Lou. Not everything about the characters worked well though; Colin Farrell looked as though he was sleepwalking his way through the film as Graves, Jon Voight was completely wasted, as was his side story. I’m also still not too sure what to make of Johnny Depp as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who’s expected to play a much bigger role in the proposed sequels.
Overall, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an entertaining film that will appeal to a wide audience, regardless of whether or not they’re die-hard Harry Potter fans. The action is immense, the visual spectacle is mesmerising, the score is brilliant and the performances are for the most part entertaining. David Yates proves that he truly is a safe pair of hands in terms of tackling this material, and thanks to J.K. Rowling’s intricately detailed script, we can now be excited about the magic all over again.
Dir: David Yates
Scr: J.K. Rowling
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell
Prd: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
DOP: Philippe Rousselot
Music: James Newton Howard
Run time: 133 mins
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out in cinemas now.