It’s been five years since the Harry Potter movies reached their end with the Deathly Hallows Part II, and now JK Rowling’s wizarding world has returned with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Set in the past, it’s not a prequel to the Harry Potter we know and love, but instead a film that stands on its own within the same universe. It is also the first movie we’ve gotten that wasn’t adapted from a novel, but instead draws its inspiration off of a text book from their universe which eventually got published for us to read. It is always exciting to return to JK’s magical world, but how does this film stand up now we’re away from the characters we know and love?
This is a spoiler free review. Once you’ve seen the movie be sure to check out the 1Up Culture Cast Spoiler Talk on the movie, coming this Thursday.
Fantastic Beasts is the story of Newt Scamander as he journeys from Britain to America with a case full of rare creatures, and then promptly loses them in New York City after bumping into an ordinary man by the name of Jacob Kowalski. The two then team up to get them back as the wizarding world comes under threat of exposure.
Eddie Redmayne does a great job as Scamander. He’s a quirky character who doesn’t fall into a lot of the writing pitfalls that such a character might normally. He’s deeper than you’d expect, and his love for his animals is infectious and will definitely resonate with animal lovers. And his no-mag partner in crime Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, is utterly fantastic. He serves as the crucial audience avatar with the world being explained to him, and serves as not only the comic relief but also a large part of the emotional crux of the story. The whole cast does a great job honestly. Katherine Waterson’s Tina Goldstein is well handled, producing a subdued by effective portrayal against the other three’s more outgoing roles. Alison Sudol is fun as Tina’s sister Queenie, and has excellent chemistry alongside Fogler.
What goes on with these four, as they struggle to help Newt Scamander find all of his missing animals, is a fun and well handled adventure. There’s plenty of crazy hijinks, with strong moments of comedy and tension as well as that sense of awe and wonder which is what you would want when dealing with the magical world and its animals. It’s not a fast paced journey, but it does the job well and carries much of the charm that the Harry Potter movies had.
It is when the film moves away from these four and into the other main story arc that Fantastic Beasts loses some of its lustre. The story surrounding Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and his interactions with Credence and the Second Salemers is a far darker narrative, and honestly feels like a completely different movie. Some of the previous Harry Potter movies – like Prisoner of Azkaban – dealt with the tonal differences between various plots well, but Fantastic Beasts never really finds a rhythm that the two arcs can settle with. The pacing of it also feels a bit all over the place. It gets introduced early on, and then goes missing for about half the film. It also lampshades where the story is going a bit too heavily, and as a result some of the narrative moments lose the weight they could have had.
These problems follow through into the third act, which was a bit of a let down. This is in part due to a rather uninteresting final clash and a deus ex machina that will work for some people but personally rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not all bad, there are some interesting moments and some nice set up for the next film, but it feels like there are several other paths they could have gone down that would have been far more interesting than the one they went with.
Visually it is a gorgeous film to watch. The old New York looked fantastic, and the more magical sides of the world were wondrous as always. There were a lot of different animals to cover as well, and just about all of them were interesting to look at and watch, some more so than others. The magic through the movie is used well, though we never get anything too bombastic. There were also a few times when it seemed to stray more into Jedi territory than wizard, but it didn’t detract from the experience. The Harry Potter universe is still a great one to take in, and the subtle changes between modern day British wizardry and the mid century American style helped to make the movie stand on its own legs.
Despite its issues, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is definitely worth a watch. When it works it works well, and many of the things that made the eight Harry Potter movies so fun to watch do the same here. It’s just unfortunate that parts of the story drag it down, and stop it from reaching its full potential. That being said, the foundation has been well laid for future movies in the franchise to deliver.