Release date: 18th November 2016/Watch the trailer here
If there is one thing above all else that J.K. Rowling has always excelled at, it is creating worlds so vivid that they feel real, and so magical that we wish they were real. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is no exception: Rowling has expanded the wizarding world of the Harry Potter novels past Hogwarts and all the way to New York City in the 1920s. With this new setting comes brand new characters; namely, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist and ex-Hogwarts student who has travelled to New York with a suitcase filled to the brim with magical creatures.
Unfortunately, Rowling’s incredible talent for inventing worlds and the characters that populate them does not quite stretch to screenwriting. Unlike the Potter films before it, Fantastic Beasts is not based on a novel, instead only loosely inspired by a fictional textbook of the same name. Rowling has written a screenplay from scratch, with plans to expand Fantastic Beasts into a five film saga with David Yates, director of the final four Potters, at the helm. This means that although Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feels distinctly like a J.K. Rowling creation, it is laden with pacing issues and all of the struggles that the first film of a series can often suffer from.
As it turns out, Newt’s case of escapee animals is merely a side plot to the main story of the Fantastic Beasts saga; one that all fans of the Harry Potter novels will be more than familiar with: the rise to power of Gellert Grindelwald, leading to his eventual duel with Albus Dumbledore. This has made for a film that feels more than a little uneven, as it jumps from a lighthearted caper about Newt and his animals to something far more serious and similar in tone to the very darkest moments of the Harry Potter series.
Thankfully, at least, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces us to four new characters to root for, just as we once rooted for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Not long after Newt’s arrival in New York, he meets Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced former Auror for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA for short); her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a skilled mind-reader; and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (or Muggle, if you’re British) who’s along for the ride. Newt may be the protagonist – and Redmayne plays him as awkward and mumbling to the point of being inaudible when around humans, but coming alive when with his animals; the exact sort of loveable misfit one would expect to find at the heart of a J.K. Rowling story – but it is Jacob who’s the real star of the show. Far from being the bumbling idiot comic relief character, Jacob is the Muggle that every fan of the wizarding world can finally see something of themselves in, awestruck by magic and desperately wanting to be a part of this strange but wonderful world which he has inadvertently found himself in – and yes, he happens to be funny, too.
Yet although these characters are central to the film, it feels as though we spend frustratingly little time with them. The same can be said for the fantastic beasts of the title; rather than introducing us to a select few creatures, a new one is brought in for every action sequence and this, combined with Redmayne’s mumbling, means we’ve hardly learned the name of each animal before another one shows up.
Fantastic Beasts is at its very best when we are transported inside Newt’s magical suitcase for the first time, which contains an entire menagerie of creatures – and luckily, for a film which relies so heavily on visual effects to create half of its characters, these effects are satisfyingly spectacular for the most part.
But for all of its flaws, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has enough charm, wit and fun to carry it through to the very end. There is a definite promise of greater things to come, and Rowling has four more films in which to fulfil this promise. Fantastic Beasts perhaps might have been better had it been a standalone film about a wizard and his case full of critters, but Rowling has never been one to do things by halves. Hopefully, as this new story unfolds and its pieces start to fall into place, this first film will play an important part in the overall puzzle. For now, however, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may be far from perfect, but it’s got more than enough magic to satisfy all those who’ve missed their regular visits to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.