Prequel and spin off. Two words that have become rather dirty in the film industry as of late. With major blockbusters like Star Wars and The Hobbit producing prequel films that didn’t hit the mark quite like their originals, prequels have made me nervous as of late. And so I went into Fantastic Beasts rather worried to be honest. Would the Harry Potter spin off deliver? Will five films be too many? The short answer is yes, they certainly delivered and I found myself craving more by the time the credits started rolling.
A niffler, one of the two great creatures in the film.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them focuses in on Newt Scamander, a magizoologist played by Eddie Redmayne. Socially awkward, Newt finds his companionship with the magical creatures that inhabit the world, no matter how charming or repulsive they may seem to us. His passion for wildlife is admirable and even contagious as he’s so earnest about it. After bumping into Jacob Kowalski, (Dan Fogler) a local No-Maj (read Muggle) whose a bit down on his luck, all mayhem breaks loose when some of the creatures break loose from Newt’s magical briefcase that houses them. As this is going on, the No-Maj community is being terrorized by a vicious magical phenomenon, creating fear and destruction which may risk exposing the secret wizarding world. And if that wasn’t enough, the Dark Wizard Grindelwald is wreaking havoc in Europe, becoming the most wanted man in the magical world. Despite his actions taking place in Europe, his presence and influence can be felt in 1926 New York.
I’m just going to come out and say it: I really enjoyed this movie. More than I thought I would. Harry Potter vet David Yates returns to direct with J.K. Rowling herself writing the script. I really appreciate that the film didn’t beat the audience over the head with exposition, everything felt organic and natural, especially to those well versed in the Potterverse who don’t need a crash course. And even for first timers, the film easily explains what has to without going overboard. I also was surprised at just how dark and mature this movie is. Racial/xenophobic/intolerance undertones lie in the heart of this movie with an “us or them” theme running through the hearts of many characters, including the passionate No-Maj members of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, who seek to expose to the Wizarding word post-Salem and if necessary, burn them alive. Some wizards and witches also believe that the magical world’s laws only serve to protect the No-Maj while they hide away in secrecy. Despite taking place in the 1920s, it feels very relevant. Oh, and there is a truly dark and twisted scene involving the death penalty in the movie that should raise some eyebrows. It’s pretty messed up when you think about it.
The cast all do a great job with their roles, bringing laughter, joy, fear and ambition to the forefront. Newt is joined on his crusade by Jacob and the Goldstein sisters, Tina and Queenie. Tina (Katherine Waterson) plays an ex-Auror who sees Newt’s misfortunes as a way to get back into the government’s good graces while Queenie (Alison Sudol) plays the mindreading Golden Age bombshell who has a soft spot for Jacob. The quartet have great chemistry and the friendship, even when you consider the amount of screen time they really share together is on the shorter side. Rounding up the cast is Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security and an expert Auror (who I might add is the best performance I’d wager) and Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, one of the adopted orphans the New Salems’ narrow minded leader.
The film isn’t perfect. Despite being called Fantastic Beasts, the beasts themselves were the least interesting portion of the film, both in terms of design and relevance to the plot. They all looked too familiar (an eagle, a rhino, a platypus etc) and the CGI just wasn’t as good as in the Potter films. Their relevance to the plot was also not as interesting as the bigger picture, this was particularly true in an extended double scene where Jacob enters the magical briefcase leading up to Newt trying to recapture the Rhino beast in Central Park. I found those scenes too long and ultimately uninteresting. However, overall I can’t wait to see what else comes out of this series. A third act twist sets up the rest of the series nicely and I confess myself genuinely surprised with it (I knew something was up but didn’t think it’d be that!). Count me in for the Parisian sequel in 2018 and for the rest of this series.