When it was announced that the Harry Potter universe would dial the clock back and head to the 1920s to tell a prequel trilogy, I was a bit concerned. I grew to be even more concerned when the planned trilogy expanded by two more films. How could they make five films about the in-universe textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? So I went into the movie with a bit of doubt and worry. Usually, prequels don’t do anyone any favours and end up answering questions to the main plot we didn’t need answers to. Worst of all, they tend to rewrite certain characters in order to fit this retooled narrative. Thankfully, when Fantastic Beasts concluded, I left surprised. It was actually pretty good.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them focuses in on Newt Scamander, a magizoologist played by Eddie Redmayne. In a welcome change of pace, Newt isn’t some confident hero type we’ve seen in many other blockbusters but rather a socially awkward and shy leading male. Newt finds his companionship with the magical creatures that inhabit the world, no matter how charming or repulsive they may seem to us, as opposed to real human interaction. Introverts will relate. His passion for wildlife is admirable and even contagious as he’s so earnest about caring for these creatures. After bumping into Jacob Kowalski, (Dan Fogler) a local No-Maj (American for Muggle, ugh) whose is down on his luck, all mayhem breaks loose when some of the creatures break out from Newt’s magical briefcase. See, Newt is in New York as a pit stop before heading down south in order to release one of his magical creatures into the wild. He houses his beasts in his briefcase, which is of course, magical, and can fit a few dozen large beasties inside of it. But when the case is opened, a few of them escape and it’s up to Newt to recover them quickly. As this is going on, the No-Maj community is being terrorized by a vicious magical phenomenon, creating fear and destruction which may risk exposing the secret wizarding world. And if that wasn’t enough, the Dark Wizard Grindelwald is wreaking havoc in Europe, becoming the most wanted man in the magical world and sending the American Wizarding World on edge with fear and paranoia. Despite his actions taking place in Europe, his presence and influence can be felt in 1926 New York as many people believe the disturbances are connected to Grindelwald’s fanatics. Many in the American Magical Congress think that the Dark Wizard could use beasts as a means of terror and it’s stated pretty early on that many people misunderstand these creatures and would harm them in an instant if given the chance-much like how we perceive common house spiders.
Harry Potter vet David Yates returns to direct with J.K. Rowling herself writing the script. I appreciate that the film didn’t beat the audience over the head with exposition, everything felt organic and natural, especially to those well versed in the Potterverse who don’t need a crash course. Who is Grindelwald? Well, if you didn’t read Deathly Hallows you may be lost and hopefully, the sequel will have some answers. But the film assumes that you know this world and doesn’t reintroduce magic from the ground up. But fret not if this is your first rodeo, enough is explained that casual viewers won’t be lost either. It’s a delicate balance and the film tackles it well. I also was surprised at just how dark and mature this movie is. Racial/xenophobic/intolerance undertones lie in the heart of this movie with an “us or them” theme running through the hearts of many characters, including the passionate No-Maj members of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, or Second Salemers, who seek to expose to the Wizarding world and if necessary, burn them alive. Some wizards and witches also believe that the magical world’s laws only serve to protect the No-Maj while they hide away in secrecy. Despite taking place in the 1920s, it feels very relevant as writer J.k. Rowling has incorporated some modern themes into her film. Oh, and there is a truly dark and twisted scene involving the death penalty in the movie that should raise some eyebrows. It’s pretty messed up when you think about it.
The cast all do a great job with their roles, bringing laughter, joy, fear and ambition to the forefront. Newt is joined on his crusade by Jacob and the Goldstein sisters, Tina and Queenie. Tina (Katherine Waterson) plays an ex-Auror who sees Newt’s misfortunes as a way to get back into the government’s good graces while Queenie (Alison Sudol) plays the mindreading Golden Age bombshell Queenie who has a soft spot for Jacob, who actually is a nice guy-unlike many of the men she works with. The quartet has great chemistry and the friendship, even when you consider the amount of screen time they really share together is on the shorter side. Fighting against them is Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security and an expert Auror. His character is wrapped around in mystery and Farrell gives the best performance in the entire film. He’s the right hand of the president but seems to be operating on his own agenda and without much scrutiny. What is driving his radical actions? You’ll just have to find out. Rounding up the cast is Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, one of the adopted orphans the New Salems’ narrow-minded leader and is a person of interest in Graves’ inquisition thanks to a prophecy showcasing a powerful piece of magic lurking near Credence.
The film isn’t perfect. Despite being called Fantastic Beasts, the beasts themselves were the least interesting portion of the film, both in terms of design and relevance to the plot. They all looked too familiar (an eagle, a rhino, a platypus etc) and the CGI just wasn’t as good as in the Potter films. Their relevance to the plot was also not as interesting as the bigger picture, this was particularly true in a scene involving Newt trying to recapture the Rhino beast in Central Park. Skip! Compared to the plot lines involving Graves, the dark phenomenon known as an Obscurial wreaking havoc on New York and how the government is using the missing beasts as a scapegoat for the happenings in town, the actual recovery of the beasts is the weaker part of the film and is the dominant part. It’s a shame that the A plot was less interesting than the sinister B plot and I think those roles should have been switched (don’t get me started on Jon Voight’s C plot). But these parts are saved thanks to Newt’s love and affection for these creatures.In short, I enjoyed this film. It wasn’t perfect but it gets better with him. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of this series. A third act twist sets up the rest of the series nicely and I confess myself genuinely surprised with it (I knew something was up but didn’t think it’d be that!). I’m intrigued what will happen now in The Crimes of Grindelwald, which hits theatres November 16th.