Based on one of Harry Potter’s first year text books, J.K. Rowling brings us another story from the ‘Wizarding World’ which proves there’s a lot of magic even without the boy wizard, in this excellent fantasy adventure.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sees former Hogwarts student Newt Scamander (an affable Eddie Redmayne) travel to prohibition-era New York with a case full of magical creatures. After some chaos at a bank, Redmayne accidentally switches cases with a ‘No-Maj’ (the American term for non-magical folk) baker named Kowalski (a standout Dan Fogler). The two form an unlikely friendship and go from mayhem to more mayhem, and are joined by Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror who is investigating Newt, and her telepath sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Though both strong in a cast full of solid performances, these two female characters do take a backseat to the budding friendship and Laurel and Hardy-ish slapstick of Newt and Kowalski. The two have great chemistry and are absolutely laugh-out-loud funny on many occasions – even without any shots of giggle-water.
Newt is shy and awkward around people but eccentric, excitable and maternal around his beasts. With his long scarf and adventurous spirit, he’s at least a couple of Doctor Who incarnations rolled into one. Redmayne is at once completely comfortable in the role and showing a side to himself we haven’t seen on screen too much – a really fun side. His quest to find his beasts whizzes along like a joyous theme park ride – nothing too deep, but magical entertainment. It’s helped along by 3D which tries to throw things at you every few minutes- a gimmick, sure, but one that feels completely appropriate here.
Alongside Newt’s plot, there’s a far more sinister storyline involving a mysterious dark force that’s terrorising the city, involving Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell’s characters. Miller is excellent in his fairly small role, Farrell is commanding, and some of the darker moments are genuinely shocking and scary. You get the sense this darker material will play a much larger role in future entries to the series.
These scenes have an altogether different tone, which would be very at home in director David Yates’ Potter entries, but balancing these with Newt’s mishaps is a little challenging. The film is guilty of both busily rushing back-and-forth between tones and spending too long on scenes that aren’t particularly advancing the plot. Without the structure of a school year, or of a much-loved book to follow, Fantastic Beasts does feel very free-flowing, for better and for worse.
For a film with ‘Fantastic Beasts’ in the title, you’d expect there to be quite a few creatures on show, and nobody will be coming away disappointed on that front. From tiny insects to gigantic creatures, we see all manner of Flanimal-type beasts, but it’s Niffler (think a cuter, jewel thief version of Scrat from Ice Age) and Pickett (a stick insect baby Groot) that steal the show – as well as the effects team. Though CGI heavy, the film still puts characters above bombast, whether it’s the human characters or those created on a computer. They must surely also take a lot of credit for making it feel like 1920s New York despite parts of it being filmed in Bedfordshire.
From Hedwig’s Theme playing over the Warner Bros. Pictures logo, we get countless visual and spoken cues which act as a reminder of just how detailed the world we already know is. They offer familiarity and firmly establish this film as part of the same wizarding world.
The setting, as well as meaning we get some beautiful costumes, immediately gives it a different feel to the other films. Whilst the No-Maj world feels nostalgic and alien due to the lack of technology we’re used to today, the magic world is…pretty much the same, it turns out. The same wands casting the same spells. We see a lot more no-maj’s than we ever did before, and this brings with it some interesting – and very relevant – political issues, with witch hunts (led by Samantha Morton’s creepy anti-witch activist) and bans on mixing with non-magic people that are straight out of the pages of X-Men.
World building is difficult for any franchise – it has to feel like it’s set in the same universe without feeling like a story we already know. It needs to give us new characters and relationships to care about; to subtly set up plot threads for sequels without this feeling forced or incomplete as a story in its own right. That is the greatest achievement of this film. Already, audiences will care about these characters, will watch this movie repeatedly, and will be excited for the (four) sequels.
Fantastic Beasts seamlessly slots into the world we know and love but doesn’t at any point feel like a retread. It feels different, fresh and exciting. It introduces the audience to a new pocket of a world they know, gives them characters to make them laugh (and maybe cry), and goes a hell of a long way to dismissing all cynicism of the four sequels to come. If they’re this good, keep them coming.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out now in UK cinemas in IMAX 3D.