DISCLAIMER – This review does not have spoilers, but does assume the reader has at least seen the Harry Potter movies, if not read the books. Although one could certainly watch Fantastic Beasts as a standalone series, its quality and staying-power cannot be discussed properly without an acknowledgement of and comparison to the source material.
I’ve just got out of a pre-screening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Between the plethora of magical creatures and jam-packed world-building, thoughts are flying in all directions as if they’ve frantically escaped a magical case! Where to start….we begin our journey as a wizard named Newt Scamander enters New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of magical creatures. He has a specific goal in mind, but him and his case of creatures are quickly diverted into a local misadventure involving the American ruling body of wizards, a mysterious and clearly magical destructive force, and a group of No-Majs (the American term for Muggles) insistent on educating their fellow New Yorkers on the existence of witches among them.
Our glimpse of an American wizarding community in the 1920s does not disappoint. In fact I will be surprised if I hear anyone is disappointed by Fantastic Beasts. The creatures are memorable and beautifully rendered. The plot, while not seamless, has less holes than most of the Harry Potter films and stays true to the world of Harry Potter in setting and tone. Did I mention the magical creatures were wonderful? I would have been happy spending the full 2 hours and 13 minutes in Newt Scamander’s case. If anyone is familiar with Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them textbook (written for the charity Comic Relief in 2001), you will catch glimpses of creatures that were rendered very close to the various sketches in the source material. A quick scan of the descriptions of some of the other magical fauna are also spot-on and there are a couple surprises of beautiful creatures not in the book.
Viewers also get a look at different facets of an adult wizarding community. Since most of Harry’s fanbase has grown up as the characters aged in subsequent book and movie releases, this choice of following adult characters in Fantastic Beasts was a smart one. In doing this, the film avoids the formulaic and derivative pitfall of many sequels and spin-offs. However this is not to say that the movie doesn’t set up some of the same themes as Harry Potter, which I deem completely appropriate, given that J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay. Mainly, we see the consequences of intolerance and demonizing the unknown out of fear. This plays out on a small scale in Newt Scamander’s personal calling to protect the misunderstood creatures in his care; as well as on the larger scale between wizards and no-majs (muggles).
Eddy Redmayne plays the main character Newt Scamander. Newt is an oddball among his fellow wizards, and Redmayne is a fitting choice for the role. His genius is not as much in his skillfully awkward portrayal of Newt’s challenges in connecting with his fellow wizards, but in his wonder, passion, and enthusiasm for the magical creatures in his care. Newt’s/Redmayne’s shining moment by far was an exceptionally funny scene between him and an Erumpent—a large, grey magical beast of great power that can be mistaken for a rhinoceros at a distance. I was also impressed by the character of Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler. Fogler has done a fair amount of voice work but likely wont be a familiar face to most viewers. His comic timing was fantastic. The character of Kowalski is a muggle/no-maj that stumbles into Newt’s path (or more accurately, the path of Newt’s Niffler) and later sustains a bad bite from a Murtlap, causing Newt to keep him close for observation. Confused? Niffler: A long-snouted black creature with a predilection for glittery objects. Murtlap: A ratlike creature with anemone-like growth on its back. Anyway, Kowalski is an outlet for our wonder and delight at seeing the magical world along side our own. He steals the show in several scenes.
Unfortunately, most of the other characters are somewhat forgettable, in my opinion. Newt has some growth and dimension, but all the female characters are one dimensional & the American President of the wizards was especially flat. Colin Farrell’s portrayal of one of the top Aurors, Graves, was well done but not super engaging. This is me being deliberately critical, mind you. I think the series had a lot of world-building & set-up for the franchise to do and that priority shows in lack of character development. My only other criticism was the often abrupt switch between comedic moments and serious or violent moments. It took me out of the experience a bit. This is a consequence of the director’s style, I remember feeling this way periodically in the Yates’ directed Order of the Pheonix and Half Blood Prince.
Fantastic Beasts is the first in what is currently planned as a 5-part movie series set in the wizarding world between the years 1926-1945. If one thinks about all the important events within this timespan for us muggles, coupled with the parallel “history” referenced in the Harry Potter series, the direction of the series is clearly building toward a specific point (don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t guessed!), and it will be an enchanting ride filled with the best of humanity, humor, and your soon-to-be favorite Hufflepuff. Thank you J.K. Rowling for bringing magic back to us. We need it now more than ever.