Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Review: Harry Potter (Doctor) Who?
Forgive me Dumbledore for I have sinned. I follow all the tenants of Potterdom; I switch my phone light on by saying “lumos” in Google, I say “mischief managed” after finishing things, and sometimes I’m even deliberately nice to my ginger friends. Yet I must confess..... I find the first two movies difficult to watch these days. Why? Because despite being full of wonderful fantasy, it wasn’t until the 3rd film that the series started to mature as both the tone of the series shifted and the younger cast members grew more into their roles (and in some cases their acting abilities). I may have enjoyed them at the time but now, looking back, this pair of Chris Columbus helmed years at Hogwarts just feel too “kiddie” by comparison to the rest. That very same reason is why I’ve been looking forward to Fantastic Beasts so much since a crucial point occurred to me; that, for the first time, is an adult story. A story for all ages of course, but centring around adult characters in a school free world which is something the original series could never deliver. Yes, they’re prequels but could these Fantastic Beasts be the kind of film the grown up faction of the fan base has been waiting for? I think it is.
In 1926, when the magical creatures enthusiast Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne – Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) arrives in New York City, he must deal some of his creatures escaping and becomes entangled into a conflict between wizards and witch hunters while an even darker threat looms.
Right from the opening seconds teasing, the classic Harry Potter theme over the WB logo, this film nails it’s nostalgia and relation to the existing franchise to give the film a warm and welcoming underlying feel. This ranges from characters using familiar spells to concepts like Squib being batted about. Even many of Newt’s creatures will be familiar to book readers like Nifflers and Bowtruckles from Hagrid’s lessons to even a fully-fledged Erumpent (whose explosive horn was kept by Xenophilius Lovegood). Not everything is explained, with assumptions of existing knowledge, so any newcomers are recommended to check out original series first. It’s all delivered in the kind of stunning visual style many would expect from the grand interiors of the American Ministry of Magic (MACUSA) to the breathtaking beautiful pocket plain inside Newt’s briefcase. The first venture into the later really is the film’s standout sequence; the camera becomes a wash of mesmerizing colour palates with gloriously imaginative creatures in every direction. You can really sense the passion director David Yates (all Potter films since Order of the Pheonix) has for this project making it little surprise that he’s already signed on to direct all the planned sequels. I didn’t think they’d ever make a creature I liked more than Buckbeak in Prisoner of Azkaban, yet Frank the Thunderbird has taken that crown; young or old he will steal your heart.
The story is an interesting case. It is essentially 2 different films sharing a singular screen time: a Fantastic Beasts tale and period piece about tension between the Wizard and No-Maj (Muggle) communities. Now, this is normally the point where I’d say that both trip each other up as they fight for dominance…. But they don’t at least not, completely. Both still manage to come across well to the extent that I would have happily watched separate full-length features about either rather than needing to cram them together. As a result, their combination still has some negative effects in the final act, which feels rather haphazard. The end “monster” is far too nonsensical even considering the franchis,e and it all feels like a rushed end villain battle in a superhero origins story. Then the ending itself is a nearly a 20-minute drifting affair that (sorry J.K.) feels very over-written. Throughout the film-skipping between the two stories occasionally creates very unsettled pacing like a forced change to keep the other story moving. One or two subplots, despite being entertaining, are also surplus; in particular a love story between Alison Sudol’s Queenie and Jacob.
However, as aforementioned, despite issues mixing them together, each of the two stories in isolation is excellent. Starting with the Fantastic Beasts/creature features Newt Scamander, and I say this in the most loving and positive way possible, is Doctor Who (…yes, now the title makes sense). Through a superb performance from Eddie Redmayne, he gives us a Who style adventure in a Potter setting which is as good as it sounds; he’s socially awkward, preaches the value of misunderstood species, his suitcase is vastly bigger on the inside, and you could even make wand/sonic screwdriver comparisons. He even gets an assistant in the form No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler – Fanboys) to be the clueless newb among all things magical and the pair has a really fun friendship dynamic between them that provides a lot of good comedy without feeling goofy. Then by contrast, the period piece/racial tension story has a lot of big meaningful themes to it from segregation (in the US wizards and No-Maj are not permitted to even speak to each other), prejudice, discrimination and even child abuse. It’s surprisingly dark in its application of real life racial tension into the magic/non-magic divide that’s an incredibly refreshing approach for the film series. Characters like Colin Farrell’s (True Detective) bring in areas of grey morality and corruption within the system to feel like more of a thriller than a fantasy piece. The New York setting is also well-used for a '20s/prohibition era gangster vibe, such as a couple underground club scenes and we even get Ron “Hellboy/president in 2020” Perlman as a goblin gangster. Sadly, it does lack a proper villain for most of the film with Samantha Morton’s (Minority Report) “Second Salemers” feeling a kitten version of Dolores Umbridge at best.
Yet the most fantastic part is this: The biggest feeling I had upon leaving the cinema was that of wanting to see more. Fantastic Beasts has created a wonderfully familiar yet intriguing new world that makes me genuinely excited for its prospects as a franchise as we follow Newt across the rest of the wizarding map (the next film is rumored to be set in Paris). It is darker than your very young children would like, even with the more wondrous creature elements so parents please take the 12a/PG-13 rating into consideration. It may not have seamlessly come together in this first film lumbered with all manner of exposition…. But neither did The Philosopher’s Stone. Potter fans should consider this mischief managed. The magic is back for a new generation and now you know where to find it.