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The Harry Potter book and movie series finished on what seemed to be a conclusive note with Harry Potter defeating Voldemort in the climactic Battle of Hogwarts and becoming the master of the Deadly Hallows. However, Warner Brothers does not want to kill off one of their biggest franchises and after a five-year hiatus, J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world is back on the big screen.
The year is 1926, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has launched a wave of terror across Europe and America. In America, anti-wizard feeling is on the rise and destructive incidents are happening across New York City. It is at this time that the English wizard and wildlife researcher Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives with a suitcase filled with magical creatures and after a mix up with an aspiring baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) some of his creatures end up escaping into the metropolis. It’s up to Newt and Kowalski to find the creatures before they are discovered by the muggles (or No-Majs as they are known in America) and avoid the American authorities who want to arrest them.
Fans of Harry Potter will recognize that the title Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the textbooks, authored by Newt Scamander. The use of this title was a way to expand the Harry Potter universe without it being tied to directly to established events of the main Harry Potter movies. A problem that the Star Wars prequel and The Hobbit Trilogy suffered was it was telling a story that audiences already know the outcome to. For Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, this isn’t as much of an issue. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them still has the issue that other franchises suffer – the question of whether there was a need for the extended universe to exist?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them marks the first time JK Rowling wrote the screenplay, so there was no doubt that there would be some authenticity to the spin-off film. Although Star Wars and The Hobbit kept their creative teams, that did not save them from criticism. Anyone who has read the Harry Potter novels knows that Rowling created a rich world – Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic were only a small part of it and the potential for spin-off was ripe. A movie about the adventures of a wizard going around the world to study creatures like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey or David Attenborough, take care of them in a sort of magical version of a travelogue film where Newt sees and experiences different wizarding cultures, would have been an amazing prospect. There was an attempt at a conservation message – that Newt’s mission is to get the wizarding world to understand the fantastic beasts – however, the movie was simply a case of giving the Harry Potter universe an American coating. Newt tells a story about an incident in The Sudan that would have made an interesting movie by itself.
The Harry Potter novels were written from Harry’s perspective – the wizarding world was new to him and all events and information were seen through his eyes. The period American setting is new: so Newt and Jacob are the audience surrogates to a world that hasn’t been explored before. They are the ones who ask the questions about the American wizarding world while Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced American auror, asks Newt about magical creatures. The movie is busy with the various plotlines involving Newt’s care and search for his creatures, the rise of the Second Salemers, an anti-witch hate group and their troubled family situation, the American Magical Congress’ inner workings and their investigations. There was a subplot involving a senator campaigning to become president that goes nowhere and seems to be a case of setting up threads for future sequels.
David Yates returns to the directing chair, having directed the four previous Harry Potter films. The tone is slightly lighter than that of the Deathly Hallows which went to some truly dark places. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is more comedic in intent. There are lots of visual gags and slapstick humor as Newt and co. try to capture all the missing the creatures – like an echidna-like creature that likes to steal shiny things and Kowalski getting attacked by a mutated naked mole rat. The biggest comic set piece was Newt and Kowalski trying and capture a large rhinoceros-like creature in Central Park: their actions include Newt doing a mating dance and a monkey stealing Newt’s wand. There are moments of awe and grandeur when the creatures are shown, particularly the big ones and the special effects are impressive for the most part – creatures with features, scales or skin looked fantastic, but furry creatures looked a bit too fake.
There are darker moments, the movie opens with Grindelwald killing three men and showing the newspaper headlines of the crisis engulfing the wizarding world. Ezra Miller’s character Credence was a tragic figure – a confused young man who has suffered years of abuse by the hand of his mother and wants to be a magic user. He’s an example of the other major theme of the movie – that if people try to suppress their magic it is like people denying their sexuality or bottling up their anger. One of the creepiest scenes in the movie was the execution room, a white room where characters’ pleasant memories are used to entice people towards their deaths.
Eddie Redmayne’s performance has been compared to the Eleven Doctor in Doctor Who – these similarities aren’t helped because of Newt’s style of dress, his suitcase is like a Tardis and his friendship with Kowalski was like the Doctor with his companions. Redmayne was likable enough in the main role and he is allowed to show his lighter side – having some witty lines during the course of the movie. Fogler who has starred in some poor comedies over his course impresses as Newt’s unwitting partner in crime and the two make a solid double act while Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol were solid as the American companions – especially Sudol who despite seemingly looking like a dizzy blonde is perfectly competent even if she doesn’t believe in herself. Farrell and Miller were also notable in their roles as Graves, the head of American Aurors and the conflicted young man, but other actors were underused in their roles while a couple of big stars look like they are being set up for bigger roles in later movies.
Veteran composer James Newton Howard worked on the music for the movie. The Harry Potter theme only appears in the beginning which is acceptable because Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a new series. The most noticeable features were jazz like tracks to accompany the 1920s American setting.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not quite the magical return to the Harry Potter that it wants to be: having the issue of being studio-mandated. It is lighter compared to the previous Harry Potter films and Yates delivers some stellar scenes. There are some interesting ideas and plenty of potential in the Harry Potter spin-offs because it is a wide-ranging world Rowling has created – but it would work better as a collection of anthology films.