When I first heard about the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them film I wasn’t that interested, especially given I’d never been that fond of the original ‘textbook’ that it’s based off of. I felt that the Harry Potter series had been wrapped up nicely back in 2011, that the necessary goodbyes had been said to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world and that it was time to finally move on. If it hadn’t been for my family’s offer of going to see the film together last night then I probably wouldn’t have watched it until it was eventually released on DVD.
Last night I walked into the cinema a doubter and I walked out a fan.
The first film in the Fantastic Beasts franchise diverges from the original Harry Potter series enough to stand on its own, but it still retains enough of the whimsy and wonder that made Rowling’s fictional universe attractive to so many millions of people. It’s assisted by the more mature nature of the film that allows for a slightly darker tone than the franchise had before. Whilst the comedic elements still play an important part in the film, the darker moments like Henry Shaw Jr.’s murder and the abuse of Credence at the hands of his adopted mother make the Harry Potter universe feel more dangerous than it sometimes did in the original series. This is likely a result of the slight shift in the target audience which I am extremely grateful for.
In terms of narrative, Fantastic Beasts was full of enough twists and turns to mask its familiar structure. The plot of the film was not entirely clear during the first half which was good given I went into the cinema unsure of how J.K. Rowling had turned a fantasy textbook from 2001 into a two hour movie. There were moments, however, that did give away more about the events in the film than they should have done. I’m talking mostly here about the reveal of Gellert Grindlewald. Despite the magnificently designed opening that made use of the enchanted newspaper clippings, the shot of Grindlewald from behind spoiled part of the film’s climax when Colin Farrell’s character was revealed to be the dark wizard in disguise. At the very least they could have given the two characters different hairstyles, although I do give them credit for the unexpected but masterful casting of Johnny Depp as Grindlewald. His presence will surely be a great addition to the sequel.
Indeed, Fantastic Beasts as a whole was exceptionally well-cast. Eddie Redmayne’s brand of awkwardness and innocence provided enough comedic value and heart as the protagonist Newt Scamander. Dan Fogler’s lovable No-maj (or muggle) Jacob Kowalski played a great sidekick to Redmayne’s character and was as far detached from the Dursley archetype as possible, although his behaviour towards the wizarding world around him was sometimes too accepting to be believable. The only real downfall was Katherine Waterston’s Porpentina Goldstein, although by no fault of the actress. Her character was the least 3-Dimensional and her feelings towards Newt were confusing during the first half of the film, her actions seeming to contrast with her tone of voice and dialogue. I hope that the sequel to Fantastic Beasts gives her character more time to grow because this film made it extremely difficult to care for her, even when it was so intent on making her a victim.
What was great about the film was that it didn’t have an over-reliance on romantic attachments, something that has always been present, but never the forefront, in Harry Potter films. It placed comedy and wonder before love which ultimately allowed these elements to shine. Unfortunately as a result of that, the two main pairings in the film were too sparsely presented for an audience to root for. Jacob and Queenie’s relationship was the sweeter of the two, even if they portrayed her as loose when she was first shown. The blossoming love between the Legilmen and the No-maj was a beautiful addition to Fantastic Beasts, although it deserved more airtime to make the ‘forbidden’ love feel genuine.
Newt and Porpentina’s budding relationship, on the other hand, was difficult to get involved in. It spanned out in the same way as it does in most films, growing from some form of rivalry to friendship and eventually romantic interest. Porpentina’s sudden change towards Newt during their imprisonment seemed too forced to be believable, as though it were forced in purely to drive these two characters together. By the end of the film Newt had a great deal more chemistry with Jacob than with her, making his confession that he kept the no-maj around because he was his friend more emotionally investing than his awkward ‘will they won’t they’ departure with Porpentina.
What I found to be the film’s greatest falter was it’s inability to form an ending. For the final 10 minutes or so the film seemed to stop and start as it changed its mind about where to cut off. The scene where Queenie kissed Jacob goodbye in the rain would have been a fitting way to end, especially given it was a great deal more meaningful than the later parting of Newt and Porpentina. Saying that, I do agree that the couple’s later reunion in the bakery was a far nicer way for the film to end, and it left the audience wondering where Jacob had remembered her or not.
Despite pointing out the negatives in this review, I did find Fantastic Beasts to be a great joy to watch. However, there were a few other small things that bugged me about the movie:
- The weird homo-erotic tension between Percival and Credence during the first half of the film.
- The president of MACUSA arresting Porpentina for not alerting her to Newt and his suitcase, despite not letting her say anything the day before when she brought him to her.
- Did Newt ever catch that bright blue insect that he saw flying around outside Goldstein sisters’ apartment? Did I miss that?
No film is perfect, though.
All in all Fantastic Beasts was great to watch as both it’s own film and as a Harry Potter sequel. The little touches that referenced the original movies, such as with the music and mentions of Hogwarts, etc., were a nice way of bridging the gap between these two series that are likely to veer down different paths. In a similar way to the Philosopher’s Stone, Fantastic Beasts managed to tell a standalone story that introduced its audience to a world and its characters that they will eventually grow attached to in the coming years. Whilst not necessarily the greatest film of the year, J.K. Rowling has proved her worth in screenwriting and brilliantly revived the much-loved Harry Potter universe.