Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight
4 STARS (out of 5)
This was always going to be a big one – and arguably one of the ‘big ones’ of the fall/winter movie season. The Harry Potter universe is so ingrained in our popular culture now that it has become something of a fragile beast, fans are wary of any changes to the universe that may upset its balances, much in the way that Star Wars fanatics came to be over the years. Potter fans, however, have fared significantly better than Star Wars watchers, as there has barely been a step wrong in JK Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry, from books to movies and even to the stage – the critical praise keeps on coming. Fantastic Beasts, however, is a step into the dark for Rowling and David Yates, long-time Potter director – and for the most part, it holds up rather well.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them focuses on Newt Scamander, wizard and beast-finder extraordinaire, on a trip to New York with a whole host of magical creatures in his suitcase. This is 1920s New York, seventy-something years ahead of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts and before Lord Voldemort was even born – and as such, we are treated to a vision of how the wizarding world operated across the sea almost three quarters of a century before the Boy Who Lived came to be. Scamander finds himself losing several of his beasts, accidentally tangling up with amiable non-wizard and baker-in-making Jacob Kowalski, and eventually gaining the attention of Tina Goldstein, a wizarding law enforcer who, too, is facing her own set of crises. Into the mix comes mysterious occurrences around the city, putting non-magical lives at risk – is Scamander’s veritable zoo of oddities to blame, or is there a deeper conspiracy at play? Scamander, Goldstein and Kowalski are on their way to find out.
This is a visually beautiful movie that truly benefits from not only amazing designs in Scamander’s beasts and the artefacts on display, but also in its action sequences – we really do feel like we’re back in the world of Rowling again. However, I shall be very quick to point out that this is not a movie that rests upon the source material, nor does it need to – in this regard, it’s a screenplay that does very well to show us a separate side to this well-established universe and, despite only two or three hints to characters we’re well accustomed to, it’s a prequel that does well to stand on its own two feet. That being said, I’m fairly certain Potter fans will get more from this than your average moviegoer. The sound design, too, is great – leitmotifs from the Harry Potter theme sprinkle throughout.
Fantastic Beasts does excellently at recapturing the wonder and intrigue that greeted us in the early Harry Potter movies, and as such makes for a great re-introduction to this universe. We’re given exposition where necessary, and are often given just enough of a glimpse into the various workings of this world without feeling too overwhelmed or left out. It benefits from having such a rich and varied world to delve into, of course. That being said, where the movie does stumble, unfortunately, is in its plotting.
This movie is huge. It’s far too big for a two-hour timeframe, and there are so many plot strands, twists and characters that it can become rather muddling – one strand of plot is resolved but another remains tangled, only for it to twist even more – leading to a climax that, unfortunately, is fairly predictable. The door is left open for a sequel, and if Rowling’s recent comments are to be taken into account, we may be seeing as many as four more – and there certainly is more ground to cover here. While we certainly do feel like we get enough of a vision into the way this world works and into many of these characters’ lives, there are plot strands and opportunities here and there that are left unexplored – and there are a couple of minor plot holes that may aggravate a few moviegoers.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Official Trailer (Warner Bros. Pictures)
The cast is altogether very talented and well-cast, Waterston and Sudol are great as the Goldstein sisters (though Tina Goldstein feels a little too undeveloped towards the end), Miller shines as a troubled young boy led by a tyrannical Samantha Morton, and Colin Farrell is arguably at his best here, though not stealing any scenes. Dan Fogler, however, remains an unsung hero of the big screen, effortlessly offering bumbling charm and sincerity through a role that can best be described as the ‘viewer avatar’ – his character, Kowalski, is just as mystified by everything as we are, and perhaps even more so as we have already been privy to this universe. In my opinion, Fogler, genuinely appears to channel one of our best-loved and most-missed comic acting talents – John Candy – with the late actor’s performance in Planes, Trains and Automobiles coming to mind. He may not be as infuriating, but Kowalski is essentially Del Griffith as a baker in 1920s wizarding New York, and he’s an awful lot of fun.
I did, however, struggle to endear myself to Newt Scamander. Eddie Redmayne is an actor who has proven himself to be worthy of the plaudits he has received and there is no doubt that he is an accomplished actor – but despite his early, amiable bumbling and moments of charming ditziness, he fails to sell me the central character with much charisma or gravitas. From the second act onwards, I didn’t feel particularly drawn to the character, as he becomes diluted in his own scatterbrained whimsy. He’s not even as whimsical as you might expect – he appears rather on-edge and withdrawn from the second act onwards, and I genuinely found myself drawn to Dan Fogler’s performance (as established). While Redmayne certainly became Scamander effortlessly, I can’t help but wonder what this movie would have been like under a different lead. Could Matt Smith, for example, have handled things differently? We will never know, of course – but I hope to see Scamander’s character and personality explored a little more in future instalments.
All things considered, despite problems with plotting and certain character elements, Fantastic Beasts is still great fun, and on the whole very well made. It stands on its own two feet fairly solidly, and while some viewers may find it haphazard at times, I have no doubt that it will entertain families with very little effort. There is still a rich story to tell here and a universe to explore, and perhaps with future instalments we will be given more space to breathe – despite the movie’s issues, I left anticipating future instalments, which for me is the mark of a film that has done its job.