Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sends us back into the Wizarding World that was introduced to readers in 1997, and cinema goers in 2001. Inspired by the book published under the same title, but with little to do with it outside of the fact both heavily feature magical creatures. The published book was done for charity and is mostly made up to look like Harry Potter's real school book and gives descriptions and histories of magical creatures; some pages include scribbled notes from Harry and Ron as if they had written them while sitting in class. The film, however, focuses on the author of that book, Newt Scamander and the time shortly before his book is published while he is in New York City in 1926.
Newt Scamander is a mysterious quiet loner. He arrives in New York City with nothing but his case full of (illegal) magical creatures, but upon bumping into a muggle -- or a no-maj as we learn the Americans call their non-magic counterparts-- and losing a niffler -- a small, cute rat-like looking creature that hunts down and steals anything shiny -- and then misplacing his case with that of the no-maj, Jacob, Newt is soon in a world of trouble.
Newts characteristics don't allow for much growth or any of the audience attachment that we had with any of the original trios of Harry Potter characters. Where some may have found Hermione a bit of a grump and annoying originally, she still had that characteristic. Newt is so seldom and appears lost in thought so often that even by the film's end, I barely felt I got to know the guy. Eddie Redmayne does play the part well and does embody the nature of Newt. In one scene he attempts to lure one of his escaped beasts with a sort of mating dance or ritual, and it was the first time I felt I was seeing Newt for what he is, or what he would be equivalent in the human world: the kinda crazy cat lady who is happy to live with her pets and human, normal human, social engagement is not at all necessary.
The rest of the cast is great though and it often felt like Newt was simply a conduit for me to be introduced to these other characters. Katherine Waterston's Tina has the biggest actual character growth or arc, and she often felt like the star of the movie. A demoted Auror, Tina is simply looking for a way back into the fold and to prove herself, and sees bringing in the person who let loose a bunch of magical creatures one way to go about that.
We are later introduced to Queenie, Tina's younger sister who is skilled in Legilimency (mind-reading.) Played wonderfully by Alison Sudol, she brings a bright light and optimism to what is quite often a very dark and dire film.
Jacob Kowalski, the no-maj, portrayed by Dan Fogler is the comic relief for most the movie. Although at first, I thought he was going to prove to be nothing but the typical dumb, tag-along character wisecracking jokes, he proves to be just as useful as anyone and fit into our group of 4 main characters perfectly.
You don't need to have seen any of the Harry Potter movies to watch Fantastic Beasts. It sets itself up as its own franchise and the world feels very different to that of HP anyway thanks to the time period between the films, and the New York settings feels nothing like the British Wizarding World we are accustomed too. That said, the film doesn't spend a lot of time explaining any of the Wizarding details that those who have watched or read the Harry Potter stories will have. So although you may wonder how magic in this world works, what wands are necessary for, and miss the odd joke about Quidditch, you should be fine anyway.
The Fantastic Beasts themselves look great for the most part. The CGI did look a bit play-doey in parts to me, but I was so impressed with the actual creatures designs themselves, that I didn't have any big issues. The creatures are as inspired as anything we saw in the HP world and that alone is refreshing.
Fantastic Beasts is about more than simply a Wizard losing a bunch of magical creatures in New York in the 1920's though. Although the trailers set that up as the main story, it soon becomes something of an intertwining story. Percival Graves played by Colin Farrell, a high ranking Auror is tracking down Newt but manages to get involved with Mary Lou Barebone, played by Samantha Morton, who is the leader of a cult trying to make the no-maj world award of the Witches and Wizards living amongst them and wants to see them exterminated. All the while the President of the Magical Congress of The United States fears the ticking doomsday clock to their exposure to the no-maj world.
To say the plot of Fantastic Beasts becomes a lot more cumbersome than the first few Harry Potter stories is putting it mildly. But the franchise has always gotten more mature with each entry and the story always got bigger and more involved each year Harry advanced. One child behind me in the cinema did get bored half-way through the movie though and started to squirm and talk, so take that information as you will.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Fantastic Beasts, but it is a very bloated movie that introduces a lot of plot threads and some you may not even notice. It's something J.K Rowling got good at even in the books: red herrings. Lots of little details and one-liners are fired off with little to no impact, but you know they will be coming back in one of the future movies.
When the film ends, even having enjoyed my time with Newt and the new cast, I had to wonder how anything works going forward with the announced four sequels at this stage. Where the story is looking to be going doesn't seem to involve Newt at all. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends up feeling a lot like a prequel, albeit a good one, but it's at this stage a prologue chapter to a much bigger story going forward.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is as whimsical, magical and as fun, as I expect from a movie set in the Wizarding World J.K Rowling, has created. It just doesn't tell a solid enough story or introduces an interesting enough lead character compared to the previous Potter films. I am really looking forward to the sequels now that I have a definite idea of what they will look like, and understand how you can get so much story out of 'Fantastic Beasts.'