It’s 1926. Newly arrived in New York, the rare magical creatures inside Newt Scamander’s suitcase escape into the city. With the Magical Congress of the United States of America in pursuit, Scamander enlists unlikely help in recapturing his beasts while a dark force threatens to expose the existence witchcraft and wizardry, straining the state of magical and non-magical relations.
Adapting J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter children’s books to the big screen was no mean feat in the early 00s. While director Chris Columbus could contain the first couple of adventures into a 2-hour 40-minute runtime it wasn’t until the more adept adaptations of Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell that the franchise stepped up a gear. The final three books (adapted into four films) were handed by veteran television director David Yates, who managed to tackle the more challenging aspects of condensing the source material and focus on the shift in tone and darker themes. With Fantastic Beasts, Rowling and Yates return with the first feature in a spin-off series focussing on a wizarding world decades prior to the adventures of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.
Following on from notable work in The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne imbues the role of Newt Scamander with a quirk that is wholly different from any character we’ve seen within the Harry Potter franchise. While some may find his patter rather charming there is very little in the way of character evolution and it falls to Dan Fogler (Jacob), Katherine Waterston (Tina) and Alison Sudol (Queenie) to create a colourful and entertaining croup dynamic for the most part. The recapturing of the titular fantastic beasts provides a levity and wonder that channels some of what we’ve seen in the earlier Harry Potter films. This feature is most certainly a world-building exercise that must do a considerable amount of leg work to get us up to speed with what will one day follow.
The darker facets of the plot threads are brought to life by Colin Farrell’s Auror, Percival Graves, Samantha Morton’s religious zealot Mary Lou Barebone and her abused, adopted son Credence, played by Ezra Miller. From the opening scene onward there are many moments that I wouldn’t deem suitable for younger children as the lighter and darker aspects of the narrative are at odds with one another for the most part. On one hand, we have a fun romp with Newt and co. chasing down magical creatures with a strong conservationist message, in the other there’s child abuse, murder, political unrest and xenophobia, with these disparate threads coming together in uneasy union for the final reel.
Having recently spent some time with another user of magic in New York it’s surprising to note that while the visual effects here are not on par with the more mind-bending elements of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the overall design, costumes and 1920s setting help create their own palette that distances Fantastic Beasts from both Strange and the Harry Potter franchise. Catching this at the BFI IMAX was by far the best way to be introduced to the gorgeous, fantastical elements of Fantastic Beasts, as the 3D and Frame Breaking effects add to the immersive experience. As is often the case with modern blockbusters, the “go big or go home” mind-set of filmmakers lends itself to the audio/ visual might of the biggest cinema screens and the best sound systems.
James Newton Howard’s score is adorned with the various trappings of John William’s original Harry Potter themes but soars when it spreads its wings and becomes its own animal. There’s a clear indication that the new motifs lay the foundation for what is to follow. In yet another year of mostly un-hummable scores it’s great to finally hear cinematic music that “feels” like something more than perfunctory orchestral noise.
Not the worst film set within J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse (I’m looking at you Philosopher’s Stone… and Chamber of Secrets), Fantastic Beasts is certainly the most conflicted tonally. This inconsistency, along with spasmodic plotting make for an uneven entry in what is set to be a five-film franchise. Luckily, the gorgeous visual design, solid performances and the magical creatures themselves should offer the fans enough fuel for the fire to keep their interest piqued for the first sequel in 2018.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out now.
You can hear Ben and I discuss the film over on our Podcast, Sudden Double Deep this Monday!
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.