Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Five years after the last film of the Harry Potter saga graced the big screen, the beloved J.K. Rowling’s universe returns to the cinemas with a new story. Written by the author of the books herself, the first installment promises not only a new film series telling an unheard story, but a prequel to the original saga as well. Below is our spoiler-free review.
While the movie doesn’t need to throw in the words ‘Harry Potter’ anywhere in the title for us to know it’s a Harry Potter movie, it cannot resist to play the Hedwig’s Theme over the Warner Bros logo, just like old times. But that’s about where the similarities to the original saga end. With every fibre of its being, the movie tries to declare that it is not, in fact, a Harry Potter movie. It may be a movie set in the same universe, and we do get tons of references and hints about it, promising many important things yet to come, but it sticks to its own story and immerses us into Newt Scamander’s struggles.
And quite big struggles they are. Newt (played by Eddie Redmayne) is a magizoologist whose quest leads him to prohibition-era New York with a suitcase teeming with what he calls ‘livestock’, a whole bunch of illegal magical animals. Unfortunately for Scamander, he finds himself in a highly bigoted world where wizards and witches are shunned by the No-Majs (American word for a muggle), and therefore ownership of magical beasts is outlawed by the local magic government. With his head ever in the clouds, Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with a local No-Maj factory worker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who, of course, unleashes all of Newt’s creatures into the streets of New York, where a Pokémon-GO-esque hunt to collect all of the beasts begins. In their mission, they run into the witch sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), who reluctantly join in on the quest.
David Yates returns as a director after handling the last four films of the Harry Potter franchise, and his trademark bleakness combined with goofy magical gags can be seen in this one as well. The backdrop of the 20s New York works well with Yates’ style, and a few particular sequences are particularly astounding. Without giving too much away, you can definitely expect the renowned and unique magic of the Harry Potter world to make a comeback. The creatures in particular are a delight to watch and will make you crack a laugh more than once. One downside of Yates’ directing style is the action sequences that blur into an unexciting mess, especially given how elaborate they used to be in the books. We saw it in his Harry Potter films, and we see it here – the wand battles end up just being people blasting energy balls at each other, with no real choreography or structure to it, and because of that the movie suffers.
J.K. Rowling’s first attempt at a movie screenplay looks like exactly that – a book writer’s first attempt at a movie screenplay. The movie seems to be divided into smaller episodes, and you can almost sense where a chapter of a book ends and a new one begins. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at certain points it might be too noticeable, as some scenes lack a smooth transition from one into another. The story as a whole is divided into two interconnected substories – one follows Newt and his attempts to catch all of the beasts and return them to his suitcase, and the other, much darker one, shows us the deeply troubled young man’s Credence’s (Ezra Miller) meetings with a manipulative auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). In fact, it’s the second story that ends up dominating the screen towards the end of the film, and it is the one that promises more world-building and mythology in the films to come. But the duality of the film also means that there’s a clearly noticeable lack of focus, and one can’t truly tell what the film is truly supposed to be about – it’s called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, so does it focus on the beasts? Or are Credence and Percival the things we should be paying most attention to? Luckily, the stories intertwine more than once which makes it more bearable.
While it was originally planned to be just one movie, it is clearly seen that Rowling has added enough hints and ideas to fuel many more films to come in the series, and they promise us further expansion of the Harry Potter universe. There are also many references and nods to the original series, some clear as day, and some that will only catch the eyes of the most dedicated fans.
The acting is good, as would be expected. The oscar winner Eddie Redmayne portrays Newt fantastically as an absent-minded but kind-hearted magizoologist, and his performance is complemented by the humorous demeanor of Dan Fogler’s Kowalski, Alison Sudol’s flirty Queenie and Katherine Waterston’s cautious Tina. Colin Farrell has interesting role as well, even if it is nothing like what he normally does. The president of the Magical Congress Seraphina Picquery is a very strong performance by Carmen Ejogo as well. Some of the well-known names that have been cast, such as Jon Voight or Ron Perlman are underplayed, unfortunately, but we can hope that they will come into focus more in later installments.
As for the verdict of the film, it can be undoubtedly said that it is a strong first installment in the new series that is sure to develop a fanbase as loving and devoted as the Harry Potter one, namely because of its clearly defined characters, intense world-building and memorable performances. The movie does suffer from lack of focus and some lazy directing decisions, but it is overall a very Harry Potter experience, and I mean it in the best way possible.
Image credits: Warner Bros.