It was 2001 when the ‘boy who lived’ found his way to the big screen, entertaining us to a series of eight films about the dark forces surrounding a young magical boy. The Harry Potter films were charming, mystical and full of wonder as we would follow the adventures of three strangers who, while they simply met on a train, would form the deepest bonds of friendship while thwarting a dark wizard with sinister purpose. The films were an absolute gold mine for Warner Bros, so it is with no surprise that they have attempted to capitalize on the success of those films with a spin-off that looks to capture the same magic as before.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is a distant prequel that takes place in New York City, during the 1920’s. It is a very different environment than the Potter films, which is exactly what this new franchise needed. While the studio, and writer J.K. Rowling could have simply piggybacked on the Potter films with delivering us something that felt copied and pasted, Fantastic Beasts manages to thrive on its own merits while still making us feel at home with what we expect from the Harry Potter film universe.
One noticeable change is that the movie doesn’t feature children as its main protagonists and instead shifts to a more grown up atmosphere than even the later Potter films explored. There are some dark and violent scenes that may frighten young children, but as the majority of Harry Potter fans have grown up since either reading the books or watching the movies, this is aged appropriately for its target audience.
J.K Rowling makes her debut as a screenplay writer and penned much of this film. While Director David Yates and company touched up some of the script, the end result of this movie is largely because of the Harry Potter author. Rowling is an excellent writer and having the creator of this world write the movie was a true blessing to Warner Bros and a smart call not to have another writer conceptualize this world and its characters.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them finds its lead in Newt Scamander, the Wizarding World’s preeminent Magizoologist. Eddie Redmayne, the Academy Award winning actor from The Theory of Everything, the film detailing Stephen Hawking’s life, plays Newt with a very quirky charm to him. He’s a very different lead than Harry Potter, and while we don’t have the same emotional anchor as Harry did with an Evil Wizard out to kill him or the fate of his parents, Newt’s care and determination for the preservation of these Fantastic Beasts is as different as it needed to be. I rather enjoyed his character and scenes like ‘The Mating Dance’ and ‘The Jewelry Store’ are some of my favorite scenes in the movie and go a long way to differentiate itself from the Harry Potter films.
Getting intertwined with Newt’s tasks while in America is Jacob Kowalski, played by comedic actor Dan Fogler, probably most known for his role as Hutch in the Star Wars-inspired comedy, Fanboys. Fogler is the comedy relief in the movie, as well as being the what the Wizarding World of America calls a No-Maj. We know this term by another name; Muggle. I would say that Jacob is our eyes and ears into this Wizarding World, but after coming off eight films based in this world, that fish out of water approach isn’t required for us and Jacob’s reactions to what is going on around him is some of the film’s best material. It is safe to say that Jacob Kowalski might very well be most movie goer’s favorite character of the bunch. I also adored his friendship with Newt as the two play off each other rather well.
Rounding out the main cast are the two sisters; Tina and Queenie Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol, respectively. At first I wasn’t a big fan of Waterston, as the Tina character just wasn’t working for me. I figured I’d give her the benefit of the doubt and see what the entire film had in store for her. While she does have a few good scenes throughout the movie, I just wasn’t convinced she was perfect for the part. She’s meant to be a eventual love interest to Newt, and I am sure future films may develop that, but I didn’t feel any chemistry between the two main leads. Her goofy send off for Newt felt forced, awkward and could have been dialed back quite a bit. The film didn’t do enough to warrant the push for where Newt and Tina eventually end up, as Harry Potter fans may already know what lays in wait for the couple.
Alison Sudol makes her feature film debut, despite being a musician for various films and TV. While the actress has had a fair history in front of the camera on TV in such shows as Dig and Transparent, this is the first time theatre goers will have seen her on camera. Her role as Queenie, with the magical ability of Legilimency (she can read minds) was a complete stand out for the film for me. Alison Sudol was an absolute joy here and a true highlight of the movie. Her infectious smile and personality balanced the dark and moody tone of the film, and her fascination of No-Maj’s was just as equally interesting.
Other characters that varied in supporting roles were Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell and Jon Voight. Miller will be seen next as the DC film universe version of Flash. Ezra plays Credence Barebone, a troubled young man who has a Witch-hating mother and two sisters, one younger and one older. Aside from some emotional baggage that comes from a broken home, the Credence character doesn’t get the time needed to really be fleshed out. Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, an Auror, Director of Magical Security and head of Magical Congress of the United States of America’s Magical Law Enforcement. Farrell was a real treat here and worked rather well in his role. I will say there was one part of his involvement that was a tad predictable, but for the most part, he pulled off his debut into this magical universe quite well. Jon Voight plays Senior Shaw, a media mogul who runs the main newspaper in New York City. His role here is one connected to various parts of the plot, but also the least entertaining part of the movie. With so many scenes trying to be relevant in this film, his and those related to him were simply there to push other elements of the plot forward.
I don’t want to discuss much of the plot to the movie as much of it was hidden from various marketing and interviews for a reason. The movie title alone can make you get the basic idea of the movie, as do the trailers as well; Newt comes to America and his magical briefcase of Fantastic Beasts is opened and several of them escape. It is up to him and his new friends to track them down. While this is the overall plot to the movie, a few other factors are woven in. You have the Barebone family and their crusade against Witches, there is also a string of magical attacks taking place throughout the city, and then there is the matter of a dark wizard, Voldem.. I mean… Grindelwald. The film actually starts with the debut of this dark force and much of the plot revolves on us knowing this man is evil. I am sure future films will be focused on this character as his connection to another grand Wizard, Dumbledore, is well-known to Harry Potter fans.
Much of what we have here in Fantastic Beasts and where to find them works, but there are moments of the film that don’t. There are some pacing issues that bog down the film and much of the more dire circumstances that occur during the film are just wrapped up to easily. There is one moment in particular where the Wizard World is doomed and Newt is there with an “I know how to fix this” type moment and it just seems far too convenient. What was entertaining about the Harry Potter movies was the fact the kids were unaware of how to fix their problems and how to solve the circumstances they found themselves in.
What is exciting about this movie is the fact it technically isn’t based on a book, yes, there was a Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them short novel, but this is more of a story about the story. You see, Newt is writing a book about his creatures and how to deal with them, and this movie mentions his desire to publish it, and that is the book that was released to us. With the Harry Potter movies based on books we knew the fates of certain characters and the events that would unfold. We don’t have that much of a road map here. Sure, there are certain characters that we know live long lives and have children, and their children have children, but much of what they can do throughout this series is shock us with new and uncharted stories.
The parts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that are memorable are the moments the movie embraces this new series and leaves the prior one behind. The differences between New York and London in regards to Wizards, No-Maj’s and other rules that Newt discovers is vastly entertaining. His views and disagreements with those make for enjoyable moments in the film. Seeing the various magical abilities used in New York is far different from what we saw in Harry Potter and when the film concentrates on those moments, it shines. I was entertained when the movie would settle in to tell its main plot, and pulled me out whenever it deviated from it. While the main characters were smartly written, I felt that secondary characters just didn’t get the time they needed to really make me care about them.
Visually the movie is rather solid, and gives us a fresh yet familiar look to the Wizarding World. Creatures look fantastic, as the title suggests, and various critters like the Niffler and Pickett, the Bowtruckle, look incredible. The set design and period work here is stunning as a 1920’s New York simply comes alive. The scenes regarding the magical briefcase are some of the best visual shots in the movie and worked rather well. Magical elements in the movie also look and feel very different than that of the Potter films with most spells also not requiring the use of a word to cast them. I highly recommend seeing this in 3D as some of the depth and visual shots really made the movie pop. The ramped up action of the final moments in the film also lend themselves to some remarkable 3D shots as various bits of debris would fly out towards you. Many films tack on 3D to inflate ticket prices, often not having the film benefit from the depth 3D can bring, but Fantastic Beasts has engaging 3D and needs to be seen as such.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a remarkable addition to the Harry Potter films and is just different enough to be fresh, original and enjoyable. It features a vastly different set of lead characters in a world that is as equally different from that of the halls of Hogwarts. While the circumstances of Newt Scamander don’t rival those of being hunted by a parent-killing dark wizard like that of Harry Potter, Eddie Redmayne delivers us a quirky and interesting character none-the-less. A few side characters get the short end of the stick here and the wrapping up of events too cleanly are really the only problematic elements of the film. J.K. Rowling’s debut as a screen writer is one of success, for the most part, and the fact that they want five of these movies shows us that Warner Bros is confident in what they have here and aside from the few issues I had with the film, so am I.
I strongly suggest that if you have seen the film, and leave a comment, please do not spoil certain events of the movie.