Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is directed by David Yates based on an original screenplay by J.K. Rowling, author of the entire Harry Potter saga, and stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell.
This is a movie that reviewers are going to talk about but it really doesn’t matter a whole lot what most of us say because this franchise is so big and so popular that people are going to go see it no matter what. And that’s fine, because I’ll say right off that this movie is worth seeing. But regardless of whether my opinion on it is crucial to you seeing it or not, I do think that I have some constructive commentary that will help you out.
Set in the same timestream and magic-filled universe as Harry Potter, only 70 years before the events that we saw take place in the Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gives us a fresh and very new look at the possibilities what that universe is all about. There are lots of reasons people loved the Harry Potter books and films – they were straight up adventure/fantasy stories which had a likable but troubled young man and his friends faced with an array of adversaries and allies, a hero’s journey of courage, growth, love and hate which finally led up to Harry having to deal with his own personal demons in ways none of us really saw coming at the beginning of the story. The books were a feat in themselves, telling this story across seven large volumes which is no easy feat. These spawned eight separate movies which had their ups and downs in terms of movie magic but which kept us interested, enchanted, horrified and delighted all the way to the very last scene.
Yet across that entire cinematic stretch, we actually got to see very little of the big wide world outside of Hogwarts School of Magic and a couple of the key locations of the magic world in England such as the Ministry of Magic, the prison of Azkaban and Diagon Alley. Being so keenly focused on Harry and his story left a lot of untapped potential in this world and it’s no mystery why J.K. Rowling would be itching to return to her creation and show us so much more to see.
On that note, Rowling shakes things up by taking us not only outside of Hogwarts entirely, but to a totally different country. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them begins and ends wholly in New York City during the Prohibition Era. The wizarding world here is similar to what we’ve seen already yet like so many things between England and the US, it’s the little things that can make such a big difference. Muggles here are called no-maj’s and the rules concerning fraternization amongst no-maj’s and wizards are much more strict, where any kind of relationship, even being friends, is not just discouraged but outright forbidden. Of course, what is not any different at all is that no-maj’s must not be allowed to know about the magic world and great pains are taken to ensure this is enforced. So when Eddie Redmayne’s character, Newt Scamander shows up relatively unannounced with a suitcase stuffed with magical creatures, some of whom don’t like being kept locked up, things get pretty interesting pretty fast.
If you’ve seen even one commercial or trailer for this movie you already know more than what’s I’ve said story-wise, so I’m not going to comment on it any further because I really don’t want to spoil anything for you. Eddie Redmayne’s character is played very low-key at the beginning, almost as an introvert. At first I couldn’t quite get what this was about, until you find out that he’s actually a bit of a misanthrope and prefers his fantastic beasts to the company of people and then you start to understand where he’s coming from. There’s obviously a whole backstory to Newt Scamander which is only hinted at here and there, perhaps setting up future reveals in the sequels and perhaps not. While we know that this movie is envisioned as the first of a five-part story, it’s not clear that Newt is going to continue to be the main protagonist. There is an antagonist setup in this movie, with a surprise cameo at the end which you really don’t want to spoil for yourself and the promise of even bigger things to come in the sequels.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a book, but that book is not this story. It was a property written by Rowling back in 2001 which is written as though by Newt Scamander and talks about some of the magical creatures which inhabit the Harry Potter world. The author bio in this book talks about him having gone to Hogwarts and been sorted into Hufflepuff and various other things about his life, but I can tell you that this is not straight cannon because there are some key changes made to his character’s past in this movie.
In regards the story of this movie, Rowling does some pretty original stuff and this is not just a straight hero/villain story with some wild creatures flying around. Nor is it just a setup for the next four movies, which I really really liked. Whether another movie gets made or not, Fantastic Beasts stands on its own as a complete story and while it’s clear that there is tons of potential to go on, there are no cliffhangers or loose threads leaving you hanging.
And also in terms of story, something else I really appreciated was that Rowling avoids a lot of cliches and standard tropes, or at least plays with them enough that she brings something new to the table. For example, Dan Fogler plays a no-maj named Jacob Kowalski, a World War I vet who is just trying to get by and open up a bakery but who crosses paths early on with Scamander and ends up being sucked into his vortex of trouble with these beasts getting loose. It’s obvious, sometimes a little bit too much so, that he’s there so that we the audience can have things explained to us via him about what is going on and what magic is all about and that sort of thing. You do not have to go into this movie knowing anything about the Harry Potter films to get what is going on. But where Kowalski could have just been a bumbling sidekick there for comic relief and exposition, he instead is actually a wholly realized character himself and you find yourself just as much rooting for him as you are for Newt and the others.
David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter films and apparently is signed on for all of these new ones. He certainly knows his way around the magic universe and his directing is competent despite a few minor cinematic or editing flaws here and there. In terms of visual effects, I will gripe that the CGI is a bit too intense and obvious, especially with a few of the creatures and some of the wilder scenes of magical devastation. It would have been good if they had spent just a bit more time on some of the visual details because I really wanted to believe that these creatures existed but I never really did. CGI has been taken to a level now where it is used in almost every single movie you ever see, and the best kind is that which you never even notice, where you are not saying to yourself “Wow, that’s really good CGI.” When you’re saying that, it’s not actually that good. Don’t get me wrong – they had some big challenges in this movie and I appreciate the work that was done, but it’s not what it could have or should have been.
So is this a good follow-up and does this begin a new stage of epic story telling in Rowling’s wizarding world? You bet it is. The flaws are minimal, the story is great, the acting and film making is not bad and I am interested in seeing more. On that note, I’m giving this one a rating at the highest levels of Pretty Good. I think you’ll have a good time, I think you’re kids will have a great time even if they aren’t tracking with all the intricacies and details of the story itself and I think you’ll leave wanting to see more. Let me know in the comments what you think and if you haven’t subscribed to my channel yet, do so now. There’s a lot more coming where this came from.
Thank you for watching.