When in 1990 J K Rowling, travelling on a delayed train from Manchester to London, had the idea for the story of a young wizard boy attending a school of wizardry, even in her wildest dreams she could not have predicted that she had just created one of the most successful franchises of modern times, granting her a place amongst the demi-gods of Hollywood next to George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry.
Five years after the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, to accommodate Warner Bros’ desire to find a family friendly franchise to fill the gap in the holiday market left gaping by the conclusion of their trilogy based on The Hobbit, for the first time Rowling has taken the role of screenwriter for a wholly original adventure set in the Harry Potter universe, based on the premise of a fictional textbook found in the Hogwarts library titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
A brief volume credited to the magizoologist Newt Scamander and published in 2001 to raise money for Comic Relief, the film tells the story of his trip to New York in 1926; a powerful and effortless wizard, he is also scatter-brained and irresponsible, whispering to his battered suitcase as he sits alone in the bustle on deck as his ship pulls into harbour. The first thing he sees is Lady Liberty, but the magical community of America is facing anti-wizard sentiment and beast ownership has been banned.
Forced to live in secrecy, the Magical Congress of the United States of America is enduring turbulent times dealing with internal and external problems. Led by president Seraphina Picquery (The Purge: Anarchy’s Carmen Ejogo), she and MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (The Lobster’s Colin Farrell) are fighting the ideas of Gellert Grindelwald (Yoga Hosers’ Johnny Depp), a dark wizard whose claims of the superiority of the magical world over its No-Maj counterpart are growing more popular amongst wizards, leading Graves to crack down on dissidence.
While an unnatural and powerful force spreading death and destruction in the city is investigated by Graves, staring at a ruined tenement as he wears his disapproving face, Mary Lou Barebone (John Carter‘s Samantha Morton), spiritual leader of the pious and antagonistic New Salem Philanthropic Society, threatens to expose the existence of magical realm and proposes to deal with it in Old Testament way.
It is to this divided city the socially awkward Scamander has come, carrying nothing more but his little brown suitcase which acts as his portable study and shelter for his animal friends. Attempting to catch one of his animals which escaped from the safety of his suitcase, Newt crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (Ava’s Possessions‘ Dan Fogler), a cannery worker with ambitions to become a pastry baker, who accidentally swaps suitcases with Newt’s externally similar case.
Newt’s reckless use of magic in front of a No-Maj gains the attention of demoted Auror Tina Goldstein who takes him to MACUSA, hoping that this will restore her position, while the unsuspecting Jacob opens “his” case only to unleash the magical beasts contained within. Now Newt must recapture the escaped animals, help Tina regain her trusted position and face the dark forces lurking inside the concrete jungle, all without being captured by MACUSA who regard him as a dangerous rogue.
As with their inspiration, the eight films of the Harry Potter sequence, the key to the film is the ensemble cast who are fantastic, all doing their best given the material and crowded screen time. As Newt Scamander, Jupiter Ascending’s Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the slightly autistic mage is excellent, confused and avoiding eye contact with the people he talks to but at this same time passionate and open around his animal friends.
Inherent Vice‘s Katherine Waterstone and Transparent‘s Alison Sudol are also good as sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein, Tina the rationalist while Queenie is the romantic dreamer, while of more consequence to the plot as Mary Lou and her abused son Credence Barebone, Dawn of Justice‘s Ezra Miller, are given insufficient screentime and are overshadow by the lead quartet. Unfortunately, Fogler serves primarily as heavy handed comic relief and Farell, Ejogo and Transformer’s Jon Voight are little more than window dressing, hopefully being set in place for development in later films.
But even with all the pieces in the right place, a script written by Rowling and directed by David Yates who made last four Potter movies, a talented cast and a fully developed universe already loved by millions, after 133 unfulfilling minutes there is a feeling of disappointment. With three interweaving plots, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is certainly high on whimsy and spectacle and full of kindness but it is low on characterisation and originality.
Instead of focusing on a central theme, the movie constantly oscillates between those three plotlines, diminishing all, a very different approach from that taken by the early Potter movies where one key story which progressed, giving the viewer time to deeply understand the motivations and relationships of the characters, growing with them and learning to love them before the crisis arrived. Where “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” was not seen until the fourth movie, in Fantastic Beasts everything must be revealed and explained immediately.
If the studio was trying to create a totally new franchise to appeal to the widest audience that might be justified, but with a vast, loyal and very patient fanbase already established there is there is no reason for everything to be buried under layers of slapstick and farce and digital manipulation. A friendship between a magician and a non-magician is something which has never been seen before but instead exploring this, Newt and Jacob tend more towards Laurel and Hardy, losing the spirit of Harry Potter’s world where the stories were of people, not stories with people.
Those films largely set within the walls of Hogwarts, or at least within the magical community, this is where that old world meets the new and the setting refreshes what was becoming very tired but the premise created by Rowling is questionable. Required to keep their nature secret it would be expected that wizards would be more puritan in their approach to magic, restraining themselves from its use where unnecessary, yet even facing the threat of exposure the Second Salemers magic is in everyday use, from public teleportation to magic umbrellas, even the simplest tasks like chopping carrots, baking or dressing in the morning facilitated by magic.
Paradoxically, with the dramatis personae composed of experienced rather than trainee wizards the overuse of magic becomes a problem of Fantastic Beasts, constantly presented without any justification and reducing what were powerful and memorable moments to just another special effect. In recapturing one of his creatures Newt says to try not to be predictable, words which Rowling should have heeded, and tied slavishly to the title rather than offering a strong story in which the exotic fauna are just a presence rather than shoehorned into scenes, and with his constant stream of nick-of-time gadgets and potions and a suitcase bigger on the inside it feels more like Doctor Who.
Being sold as “more of the same” is unusual for any film but Warner Bros know their audience and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them undeniably suffers from what can be called Hobbit Syndrome. A beautiful and simple story for children which was mutated by the studio into an overlong, computer generated prequel to The Lord of The Rings trilogy, with this the first of five planned movies spanning 1926 to 1945 when Albus Dumbledore confronts and defeats Grindelwald, too much of the paper thin plot is telegraphed and apparently setting wheels in motion for later films.
It is likely safe to predict that this future will see the beginnings of young Tom Riddle, and who wouldn’t want to, but by limiting the Fantastic Beasts and their keeper to the role of a mere prelude to the adventures of Harry Potter Warner Bros may be securing profits for the next decade but have doomed what could be fantastic and unique story to always be seen as a side dish for a main course which already been consumed.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is now on general release and also screening in IMAX