Directed by: David Yates Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Colin Farrell Running Time: 133 mins
For those not in the know Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is the latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s highly successful and ever expanding wizarding world – a spin off of Harry Potter, intended by the good folk at Warner Brothers as a means of providing a whole new lease of life for the series; a franchise grown from a textbook that exists in the novels, and a prequel of sorts. Got it? Ok, so depending on how you feel about all that, and your level of cynicism regarding the nature of movie studio cash-grabs, you may be glad to know the film is actually a rousing success.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an extremely fun and compelling adventure. One that injects a bit more of an exciting blockbuster feel to proceedings, while still maintaining the boundless imagination, heart and magic of its predecessors.
Set in the 1920’s, we meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York for the first time. Newt, an introverted “magizoologist”, carries with him a suitcase full of magical creatures that he collects and cares for. A chance encounter with Jacob Kowalski, a “muggle” (or “no-maj” as they are know in the States), and Porpentina Goldstein, a witch working for the American Ministry of Magic, sets in motion a series of unfortunate mishaps that results in a handful of said creatures managing to escape the suitcase. Newt must track down the escapees with the help of his new friends, before they are discovered by the muggle population and the world at large.
In the midst of all this there is a larger plot unfolding involving the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), their Director played by Colin Farrell, and a young man and his sister caught up in the machinations of a crazed anti-witch cult.
Despite its connection to the Harry Potter films Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them manages to stand on its own. One could easily walk in with no prior knowledge of the franchise, be perfectly clued in to what was happening, and be entirely satisfied with its conclusion without feeling short changed or confused. Fans are sure to delight in spotting the numerous references and easter-eggs, and there are a handful of seeds sown for future installments, but overall the story is thankfully pretty self-contained.
While the film juggles multiple storylines and does so quite well for the most part, the pacing can’t help but feel a little off in places. The attempts to recapture Newt’s beasts take up a large amount of screen time – this proves to be a bit of a distraction as the film wears on and the larger story becomes more compelling. As a result certain plots get drawn out, treading water till our heroes catch up with them. Others end up feeling oddly rushed, with a few key pieces of back-story being delivered via hasty exposition instead of being shown for maximum impact. But these are essentially minor issues in an otherwise great film.
It would be surprising if Harry Potter fans didn’t revel in the chance to revisit this world, but will they feel the same connection with this largely unknown bunch of characters as the ones they grew up with?
Newt as played by Eddie Redmayne is an odd lead character and even slightly irritating at times. He is likable, but hard to truly love. This is due in part to the somewhat impenetrable nature of his character, but also to Redmayne’s constant exaggerated mugging and awkward posture. A welcome attempt to humanize his character and lend him some depth comes a little late in the game. Hints regarding his backstory and a possible failed romance are effective, but it would strengthen our connection to Newt if we were to learn these details earlier on. Ultimately however it allows us to warm to him by the film’s end.
Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, who seemed from trailers like he might simply be the annoying comic relief, is actually something of a highlight and provides a surprising amount of heart as Newt’s non magical human sidekick. He is our window into this crazy world – In a story filled with experienced wizards and witches at the height of their power it was a wise move to give us a no-maj like Jacob to anchor the audience, allowing us to experience events through his eyes. Fogler plays the role just right.
Katherine Waterson is great as “Tina” Goldstein, lending just enough vulnerability to her disgraced MACUSA agent character, while still coming across as capable and driven. Her sister Queenie played by Alison Sudol is charming and instantly lovable. Colin Farrell turns in an imposing performance as Director Percival Graves, and Ezra Miller somehow manages to make an impression despite basically never getting to raise his head or look anyone in the eye for the entire duration of the film.
As was the case with the Harry Potter films Warner Bothers seem to have spared no expense here. The effects on display are stunning and generally as flawless looking as they get. The character designs for the beasts themselves are interesting, awe inspiring and cool – sometimes treading a fine line between creepy and cute, but mostly tending more towards the latter. One amusing creature in particular gives off a very Pokémon type vibe, which is apt given the nature of Newt’s quest to essentially “catch em all”. What’s more, the 3D is used to great effect, with many of the beasts and visual effects popping out in our faces, and even breaking the frame in IMAX. While some viewers may find this slightly gimmicky, it’s immensely fun none the less, and likely to appeal to the younger members of the audience.
Another highlight worth mentioning is Newt’s suitcase which, suffice to say, is far bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. This is something that’s hinted at in the film’s trailers as we see Newt descend in to the suitcase, beckoning a stunned Jacob to follow. Without going into detail here, the inside itself is a brilliantly realized and fascinating place.
After directing the last four Harry Potter films David Yates is perfectly at home with Fantastic Beasts. He clearly has a passion for the material. Yates fills the screen with so many inventive and absorbing touches – creating a constant sense of magic and wonder, along with some truly excellent action set-pieces. With Yates set to direct the many sequels to come, it’s reassuring to know the franchise rests in such capable hands.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does for the Potter-verse what the recently released Doctor Strange did for Marvel – it expands the franchise in new and exciting ways; building on what we know, while providing a new fully realized world all of its own. Fantastic Beasts succeeds in an even greater way. With the globetrotting nature of Newt’s profession opening up a literal world of possibilities for future installments, and a wealth of history to drawn upon, it’s clear there’s still plenty of life left in this franchise. Assuming they can maintain this level of quality, the prospect of multiple sequels is more than welcome.(4.5 / 5)