Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight and Colin Farrell
Plot: Newt Scamander (Redmayne) comes to New York with a case full of magical creatures and becomes the main suspect when a mysterious entity starts terrorising the Muggles.
Right now, it appears to be a trend with creating spin-offs for the bigger cinematic franchises. Star Wars had Rogue One and now Harry Potter comes out with Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. The trick with creating a good spin-off is to find a new draw, something that takes the spark of the original piece, but doesn’t draw too heavily from it. Therefore with Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, we get the thrills of the magicking world, but everything else feels new and exciting. For one, it is set in America, so we get an insight into a whole new segment of the wizarding world. For another, perhaps more important reason, it isn’t using any of the original character roster. There is not only an absence of Harry Potter, but any character whose nostalgia meter could knock the plot off-balance. As tempting as it is to cram Severus Snape or Albus Dumbledore cameos into proceedings, their appearance would take away from the power of the story. Therefore we get a story that can stand up on its own two legs and it makes Fantastic Beasts something quite special because of it.
The plot opens with Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a British resident coming to America to research his novel about caring for magical creatures. Redmayne’s Scamander is a great character, instantly separate from Radcliffe’s Potter. With the air of minor autism about him, never confirmed, but present for those that wish to read into his lack of eye contact and peculiar choice of words, Redmayne attacks the character in the kind of way that only he can. Redmayne is a great choice for oddball characters and it must be refreshing for the actor to be able to transport this characterisation into a fun blockbuster, rather than a dour biopic affair. He steals the movie’s best gags, either with his direct speech or one amazing scene where he captivates a rogue animal with a mating dance. You wouldn’t get this from Radcliffe, certainly. Scamander arrives in America, full of smiles and hope, not realising that America’s wizarding climate is a little different from the UK’s. Muggles, or as they are known here, No-Majs, are slowly becoming aware of the existence of magic and a war is potentially brewing between both factions. Witch-burning hate groups are slowly building up support and the wizarding government is becoming less tolerant out of fear of what could happen. Magical animal breeding in particular is banned altogether, deemed too risky for uncovering their existence. All it takes is a rogue dragon to put a stop to the secrecy surrounding wizards. To make matters worse, brooding auror, Graves, played stoically by Colin Farrell, is tracking down a destructive force, attacking New York City at random, that could very well be an escaped animal. When Scamander shows up with a suitcase full of strange creatures, he becomes prime suspect number one, especially when he accidentally switches his case with a Muggle baker. Scamander, teamed up with a disgraced Auror and her oddball sister, must break away from the right wing government and grab his innocent animals back, before anyone gets hurt. All the while, what is causing the destructive force and could he connected to the rise of dark wizard, Grindelwald. There’s a lot to cram in here and the opening of this movie is a dizzying attack of exposition. As someone who has always had an understanding of the novels to keep him afloat during the heaviest of Potters, I finally understand a few of the grievances audiences may have with the films. There is a lot of plot to get through and the first opening minutes really need to be slowed down. You are introduced to the anti-witch protest group without quite clicking how malicious they are, at first glance. However, the best advice with Potters, is to dive in, take it at face value and usually, there is some meat waiting for you in the middle of the film as a reward for your patience.
And the reward here is imagination. There is bucketloads of the stuff. The whole premise of Fantastic Beasts is to strip Harry Potter away from the world of Harry Potter and seeing what remained. The delightful response is endless potential. There is a rewarding sense of entering the world of magic, without whispers of Voldemort or Quidditch, instead trying to find new ground in the universe. J.K Rowling’s script has fun exploring angles that there wasn’t necessarily room to explore before. The main difference is the story’s reliance on muggles. Dan Fogler plays the non-wizard drawn along for the ride and could steal the show with his wide-eyed wonder and schoolboy delight at what he is seeing. He reminds us just how awesome magic is, something that the ninth wizarding film could have forgotten. There is also some fresh villains. Harry Potter has always been home to some remarkable bad guys, but it is also easy to copy and paste what came before. Here, Rowling has some new takes on the nemesis figures. Farrell plays it straight for 70% of the role, but small exchanges between him and a muggle he is using for information add a deliciously dark undertone to the character. Samantha Morton has a side-part as the head of the Witch-burning society, but is the definition of foul: a child-beating, acid-tongued creature, who you just want to see suffer a gruesome fate. It is also, again, interesting handing the role of a villain over to someone who is not magic, adding a fresh tone to her scenes. Outside of the villains, there is then the creatures. Again, there is no repeat showings here, even if it could have been easy to throw a Hungarian Horntail into the storyline somewhere to quickly gain points for familiarity. Rowling goes the hard way of earning our approval and puts new creatures to the forefront of the story, including the kleptomaniac Niffler, a platypus with the mentality of a magpie, and an Erumpent, whose scene in Central Park steals the movie. The only sour note to the animals is the real identity of the creature destroying New York. The idea behind the creature is a fascinating one, which adds a tragic undertone to the beast, but the final spectacle quickly becomes a CGI mess, more commonly seen in a Marvel movie. It briefly steals the humanity from Fantastic Beasts, which is a shame, because before it was doing so well in celebrating its human touch.
Final Verdict: Fantastic Beasts proves that there is mileage in the wizarding world yet, with a fun adventure which survives with a single mention of Potter.