Directed By: David Yates
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller
It's 1926, and names like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are decades away from being known throughout the Wizarding World. Instead, the wizarding community fears Gellert Grindelwald, a Dark Wizard with evil ambitions whose sudden disappearance has sparked concern across the globe about what he could be up to. Against this backdrop of growing danger, magizooloist Newt Scamander arrives in New York with a suitcase full of all kinds of magical creatures, and it doesn't take long before some of them get out, threatening to expose the Wizarding World to the muggle - or No-Maj, as the Americans refer to them - community.
For Harry Potter fans, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a dream come true. It's been nearly a decade since J. K. Rowling's groundbreaking series came to a close and five years since the final film adaptation of it hit theaters, and though it has continued to live on in various ways via things like the Wizarding World at Universal Studios parks or the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play, we haven't really been given something to truly sink our teeth into. As a breeding ground for unlimited storytelling potential beyond the adventures of Harry Potter, the Wizarding World has remained relatively untapped up until now, and Fantastic Beasts - written by Rowling herself, no less - serves as an introduction to a wonderful new era for the franchise that will, hopefully, prove fruitful for years to come.
As I covered in my Retro Reviews for the first four Harry Potter films, I absolutely love the books and respect the films, and while I wanted more stories out of the Wizarding World, I was also reluctant, as the idea of there being too much of a good thing exists for a reason. When Fantastic Beasts was announced, I was excited, especially for the fact that Rowling herself would be penning it, but I couldn't keep that niggling voice in the back of my head completely silent from whispering that it could fall apart, underwhelm, or fail to live up to all that Potter provided.
All this is to say that I went into Fantastic Beasts on Thursday evening with my hopes high but expectations in check. Fortunately, I came out the other end of the film relatively satisfied with what I had seen and curious now that the table has been set for a much larger course over the next few years via four planned sequels, even if I have some minor issues with Newt Scamander's first adventure.
Before I get into those, let me first start off by saying that the franchise's production design hasn't missed a beat since Deathly Hallows: Part 2 back in 2011. As always, the Wizarding World comes to life in every corner of every frame, and though it is essentially a period piece in comparison to its predecessors, the set design and costuming all feels right at home with the overall franchise. Great, too, are the special effects, in particular those - of which there are many - bringing Newt's creatures to life. Fans will be more than happy to see creatures from the Harry Potter books that never made it to the movies, like nifflers and bowtruckles, and creatures from Rowling's Fantastic Beasts guidebook that served as the inspiration for the movie, like a Demiguise and Occomy, for the first time, and one of the film's best sequences revolves around the spectacle of seeing them all living inside of Newt's suitcase.
Just as with the various Harry Potter stories, Fantastic Beasts injects a number of new concepts into the franchise at large, most notably the existence of Obscurials and Obscurus, and even touches upon some interesting particulars about Wizarding history and the differences between the American community and the English community. Between all this and the abundance of creatures, there's a lot to digest for fans, and Rowling's obvious undying love for what she has created is infectious, with each new tidbit of information or reveal carrying with it the same kind of mystery and excitement as learning about things like Hogwarts and Quidditch and so on for the first time alongside Harry Potter was all those years ago.
In so many ways, Fantastic Beasts feels like a natural extension of the franchise, and while, thankfully, it works, it also has the burden of laying the groundwork for so much more to come. Like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, it's busy setting up so many concepts and introducing new characters that will carry us forward that the narrative within the film itself can be, at times, a little unfocused. Unlike that story, though, which planted Harry firmly as our lead and in to this new world, Newt doesn't often feel like the lead in this big adventure, with the focus spread out across a handful of characters including Katherine Waterston's ex-Auror Tina, Colin Farrell's Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security, Ezra Miller's neglected Credence, Alison Sudol's charming Queenie, Tina's sister, and Dan Fogler's scene-stealing Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj caught up in the events.
Compared to Potter, Newt isn't really the nexus around which everything swirls. Recapturing his beasts across the city is a heavy focus of the film, sure, but his presence almost feels incidental to where the film's final act ultimately goes, and even his sole character trait really comes down to the fact he truly loves his creatures. Rather than keep the focus on Newt for the most part, the film juggles so many faces without digging its claws into any single one save Jacob, who really does end up being the heart of the film, which ultimately creates a much different and more expansive feeling than Potter's story despite losing a lot of the introspection that helped readers and viewers relate to the Boy Who Lived. Even so, the performances are solid, which makes the idea that no one gets to really explore their characters easier to digest, but the notion that Newt's seeming irrelevance to the larger events that this film is clearly preparing us for is curious, and hopefully the character doesn't get lost in the shuffle in the way, say, Bilbo Baggins often tended to during The Hobbit films.
Despite its tendency to narratively wander rather than stay focused, I can't fault Fantastic Beasts. Even in its effort to prep us for more films and layer in teases to future events - from name-dropping Albus Dumbledore to mentioning but not exploring Newt's past with a former flame named Leta Lestrange, which should raise a few flags with Potter fans, to leaving a few loose ends open involving the fates of a few characters - the films still manages to stand on its own two legs, and its runtime practically flew by. Even if it is jumbled, it never really feels so while watching it, which makes a huge difference; still, though, I hope that going forward, the series can learn to live a little bit more in the now than keep asking us to put our eyes to the future.
Lastly, if there's one thing I'm truly disappointed with, it's James Newton Howard's score. Obviously, John Williams set a high bar for the franchise with his work on the first three Harry Potter films, but even the composers that worked on the series following his departure all added something memorable to their films that stuck with me leaving the theater (and to this day). It's telling, in my opinion, that the most noteworthy thing from Howard's work here is the occasional reprisal of Williams' "Hedwig's Theme." Nothing really caught my attention while watching the film, and though that wouldn't be too bothersome in some other cases, this is a franchise that has already proven it can inspire some standout work. While I'll always appreciate any and all callbacks to such an iconic tune, it would be nice if Fantastic Beasts can give rise to one of its own, and whether that's through Howard or another composer, I hope the sequel can deliver in that regard.
When all is said and done, I think we'll look back on this first entry in the Fantastic Beasts series fondly, even if there's a sense now that much can be - and will be - refined going forward. Despite following in the footsteps of Harry Potter, it truly does feel like we're witnessing something fresh and new and not just a cynical cash grab. The film exudes passion from all those involved and confidence in itself right off the bat, which is a welcome thing that will ideally continue to carry us through the end of this run. For Potter fans, it's a dream that we finally have something new to look forward to, and even as an entry-level step for general audience members who may have skipped the Potter craze, it's a charming piece of work whose nice balance of the heart, humor, and dash of darkness that has always given the franchise life will undoubtedly leave many smiling and looking forward to more.
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