Fifteen-years since J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were first adapted for the big screen, the author invites us back to her wizarding world for a new series of films based on a Hogwarts textbook entitled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It may only be five-years since we’ve seen the Rowling’s fully-realised world on the big screen with 2011’s Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2, but the time between the concluding chapter in the boy who lived’s story and this new prequel has felt much, much longer for somebody who holds the series so close to their hearts. I can confirm, however, that the wait has been well worth it; and, if anything, the timing for this latest and rather brilliant adventure feels like a case of perfect timing in relation to recent real world events.
There’s many reasons why ‘Fantastic Beasts’ shouldn’t be half as good as it actually is. The fact that it’s a prequel immediately draws terrifying comparisons to how George Lucas almost destroyed the Star Wars series, and after Rowling’s constant insistence that she is done with the Harry Potter story, the words ‘cash’ and ‘grab’ come to mind whenever a new Potter-related book or show or film are released. Fortunately, neither statements are true in this instance as Rowling and returning Potter-director, David Yates, have together crafted a new franchise that, whilst it shares the same DNA as Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling is that DNA), feels completely fresh in many ways.
Set 70-years before the events of Potter, Rowling’s script cleverly puts a hefty distance between the two franchises. Here, the action takes place in New York city, a location far and removed from Surrey and the country landscapes featured in the Harry Potter films, and which opens up Rowling’s vast imagination even further to the way in which other magical cultures operate. Newt Scamander, a British Magizoologist who enters the country armed with a briefcase full of a weird and wonderful assortment of magical creatures, ends up at the centre of a larger plot involving dark wizards when some of his animals are accidentally set loose in the city.
If there is one criticism to be made of the film, it is the fact that the two plot strands running throughout sometimes feel like they are fighting for attention. The narrative in which Newt, a No-Maj (the American alternative for Muggle) and two native witches race around the city to try to track down the beasts offers enough fun and excitement to fill the one film. But, seeing as this is the first chapter to a five chapter story, the need to world-build and set-up future instalments often unbalances what could have been a much simpler and nonetheless enjoyable picture.
This criticism is very minor in the grand scheme of things, and the good in the film far outweighs the bad. The fantastic beasts themselves are absolutely delightful, with creations that include a show-stealing Niffler (a mole-like creature with a penchant for stealing shiny things), an Erumpent (a giant hippo/elephant hybrid which traverses Central Park in search for a mate) and a Bowtruckle (a small stick insect-like creature that is just on a level of cuteness up there with Baby Groot). When these wonderful creations from Rowling’s wonderful imagination take centre stage, the film is arguably at its very best.
But of all these fantastic beasts, it’s Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the central hero which is most memorable. Shy and slightly offbeat, Redmayne is utterly charming as Scamander and, whilst he is supported by an excellent cast which includes Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol, it is Redmayne who often saves the film from its weaker moments – of which there are admittedly few.
It isn’t perfect – the less that’s said about a certain cameo in the final act, the better – nor is it quite at the same levels of Harry Potter (not yet, at least), but at this stage, it’s important to remember that this one part of many and I have enough faith in Rowling and Yates to know that the films will only get better from here on out. On its own merits, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is incredibly enjoyable, lots of fun and, perhaps most importantly, offers a heavy dose of cinematic magic that we could all do with right about now.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com