A cynic would argue that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set in the world of Harry Potter, is merely a shameless example of Warner Brothers holding a begging bag and asking for more of our money. With five films in the pipeline and a gotta-catch-them-all title, preparing you for an onslaught of “fantastic beasts” plush toys, it’s difficult to argue against such accusations.
But J.K. Rowling is back on board, writing the story and screenplay, with a completely separate tale set decades before the boy who lived even wore his circular spectacles. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a sumptuous, revisit to a world we can’t help but miss, including all the wonders, energy and quirky comedy that made the Harry Potter tales so thrilling.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a bumbling, socially awkward beast researcher, arrives in America clutching a worn, leathered suitcase. This single artefact carries his collection of weird and wonderful beasts. It includes the greedy Niffler, pilfering pocket change and glistening gold diamonds if it hears them close by. The Erumpent, a gargantuous hippopotamus-thing that has a strange mating ritual, which Newt knows in detailed form. There are many, many more and, only upon realising that all fantastic beasts are outlawed in America, does Newt misplace the case in the hands of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a man who dreams of his own bakery. But darker demons lurk in the shadows of 1920’s New York, as a terrifying evil is threatening to reveal the wizards and The Magical Congress of the USA, including the sly Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), is doing everything in their power to stop these hidden truths from coming out.
When re-watching every Goblet, Prisoner and Deathly Hallow, it becomes apparent that, in close succession, they don’t transition smoothly. By the fourth film, as Harry, Ron and Hermione go to school and attend lessons, the repetition of each year in its entirety feels tedious. Potter-heads, on the other hand, watching them year after year, are desperate to see their magical friends again. I suspect every moment in their presence is to be cherished by fans. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them equally suffers from the same dilemma, as the story ultimately doesn’t fill the over-two-hour runtime. Director David Yates, a veteran of the Potter series, crams the blockbuster adventure with every possible trick in the magic book. Glorious shots linger on majestical creatures taking flight, while whipping wand hands and destructive forces destroy art deco buildings in expert fashion. Fans who love the world of Rowling will savour every moment while everyone else will see gratuitous extended scenes that could all be clipped a teensy bit.
Crucially, Eddie Redmayne is expertly cast. Newt is the unknown, weird child at school (unlike the famous Harry Potter) while his new found muggle friend, Jacob (stealing every scene) is a man happy with his lot, with dreams of fancy cakes and sweet pastries. The two make a quietly impressive pair, with Scamander’s intelligence ultimately winning the battles and Jacob’s wise-cracks lightening the tone. Themes of child abuse, damaged minds and conservatism provide the backbone of Fantastic Beasts intriguing plot. Immediately relevant, this American take alludes to truly American issues, including gun-control and Christian cults. Harry Potter often had god-fearing critiques, connecting his mystical powers to the occult: Rowling must have relished this opportunity to vilify their barmy perspective.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, like every Harry Potter film, has elements you cannot help but wish to tweak (with a few too many parallels to Men in Black), but fans will adore it. You’ll be swept up and energised by this innovative approach. Everything, from the spooky children to the colourful costumes, is a polished example of family filmmaking at its best. With a franchise firmly established, this is a strong start – with the potential to globe-hop between each city (I believe Paris is next) – and expands the series in a way that Potter only dreamed of.