In Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them we are returned to the world of magic and wizards and witches but set in 1926 New York, USA well before our boy wonder Harry Potter was born. The film shifts the focus not only to a new protagonist but a brand new location which expands the Harry Potter universe even further. The film, its characters and actors and all those behind the scenes have massive shoes to fill. Can J.K Rowling as screenwriter and executive producer help steer them all to assured box office success? It’s probably a given but this film isn’t entirely without its niggling little goblins.
We meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British wizard visiting New York for the first time. He’s a little odd, and very wide-eyed at his surroundings and he just so happens to be carrying a magical leather suitcase that’s jam packed with an array of magical creatures. Scamander is no ordinary young man playing tourist, he’s on a mission to find more magical creatures and study them, he’s a Magizoologist. A chance encounter with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) when one of Scamander’s creatures gets loose from his case results in some slapstick comedy but also lands him in hot water with Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) of the MACUSA (Magical Congress of United States of America). But there are larger problems plaguing New York, a mysterious unseen force is terrorising the streets and threatens to reveal the wizarding world to the No-Majs (aka humans without magical ability, or muggles). If it’s not stopped it could result in mass panic and a war breaking out.
Eddie Redmayne brings his characteristic nuance to the role of Scamander. He’s a little odd, evidently socially awkward and he clearly prefers the company of his creatures to that of humans (be they magical or muggle). Redmayne delivers a softly spoken but also fiercely protective Scamander in typical Redmayne fashion. And despite Fogler’s Kowalski not really having much to do but just tag along behind Scamander for the ride, their evolving friendship out of coincidence is endearing. Plus Kowalski as a character becomes our POV and he’s probably the most relatable since we would all love to be wizards or witches. Katherine Waterston’s Porpentina Goldstein has a similar spark to Scamander, demoted from being an Auror and considered a bit of an outcast amongst the MACUSA, she initially sees him as her ticket back to being an Auror but soon grows fond of his quirks and realises that his creatures are actually the least of their concerns. Alison Sudol who plays Queenie Goldstein, Porpentina’s sister, is surprisingly wonderful addition to the core four-some playing the smitten mutual love interest of Kowalski.
There isn’t as much whimsy in Fantastic Beasts, probably because all our protagonists are adults making their way in the world. Whether it’s Jacob trying to start up his own bakery business, or Porpentina trying to survive another day working in the MACUSA. And there’s also the escaped critters that need to be rounded up. Then of course there’s the fact that the film does get a little tangled up in its own darker subplot going on involving Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and a mysterious boy called Credence (Ezra Miller looking suitably goth) which eventually does make its way back around to connect up with the main story. But admittedly it’s a stretch and feels like it’s purposefully done as an introduction to the character of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, whose casting caused some furore amongst Potterheads).
In some ways the film potentially could have done away with the dark brooding substory and just kept it simple. Having some of Scamander’s wonderful menagerie escape and cause havoc resulting in he and his new found friends having to recapture them. I feel like this would’ve been a far more fun introduction to our Magizoologist and a better origin story for his character. And let’s face it, personally I just wanted to see more of the creatures and learn about them. But evidently “they” (possibly the studio?) have opted to build up the franchise and story arc instead by having a subplot forced in to a story that was already quite full with character introductions and dealing with a story about fantastic beasts and finding them in Scamander’s luggage.
Interestingly the teamwork of J.K Rowling and director David Yates (who previously worked on Harry Potter films also) has helped bring something unexpectedly unique to this film. It highlights the cultural differences not just between wizards and muggles or as they call them in America “No-Majs” but also the difference between Americans and British. It’s an interesting “race” division that escalates when the possible exposure of magical people could result in a war. So there’s some heavy themes being brought to the fore that are a clear reflection of real life. The obvious setting in New York is obvious to try and appease the US market, but we won’t hold that against them. Not to mention there are subtle drops of some friendly competition between the schools, Hogwarts VS Ilvermorny.
It’s no surprise at all that where this film shines brightest is in its visual effects and visual style. Immediately we are transported to New York, America, a place of fast growing industry. That gleans of shiny silvery steel and illustrious yellow gold. The building architecture is straight up metal and brickwork of the classic Brownstones with art deco tones traditional of the 1920’s era. The MACUSA is gleaming and bright and a skyscraper that reaches to the heavens. Both of these are a stark contrast to the world of Harry Potter with its gothic architecture and sandstone castles with darkened corridors.
Then there’s the creatures themselves, the mischievous kleptomaniac Niffler steals the show mainly because it looks like a cross between a platypus and a spineless echidna. But the Thunderbird is absolutely gorgeous, a massive eagle-like creature with 4 wings and a long double tail that has the ability to generate storms and rain. The VFX team have gone all out in making these animals look like a combination of familiar and alien with a splash of special abilities thrown in. These days the possibilities are almost endless at what they can come up with.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them reinvigorates the wonder and magic that we all experienced 15 years ago when the first Harry Potter film was released. Eddie Redmayne is wonderful as the awkward young man intent on learning about and protecting magical creatures. And his cast-mates prove to be a great supporting unit. It does well to highlight the differences in culture, and style and attitudes between the British and American people both magical and non-magical. Though it does suffer from two separate stories being crammed together. But most importantly it returns us to a wonderful universe of magic that is visually spectacular and pure escapism.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 133 minutes
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is now showing in Australian cinemas through Roadshow Films