Let’s just get this out of the way: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a much more enjoyable watch than almost all the Harry Potter movies, except maybe the third one, Prisoner Of Azkaban.
Full of magic, wonder and strange creatures, Fantastic Beasts is fantastic fun, and a lovable beast of a movie.
Set in 1924, about seven decades before Harry Potter was even born, and when Albus Dumbledore was still a teacher rather than the headmaster of Hogwarts, the story follows the adventures of Newt Scamander, the (future) author of legendary wizarding textbook Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.
It begins with Newt landing in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures he has captured. There, he blunders into a No-Maj (the American equivalent of Muggle, or someone with no magic) called Jacob (Dan Fogler), which sets off a series of events that lead not only to some of his creatures escaping, but also to him meeting Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced former Auror who is determined to get her old job back by turning Newt in.
In the meantime, another Auror called Graves (Colin Farrell) investigates a curious phenomenon that threatens to expose the secret wizarding community to No-Majs, and starting a war between the two factions.
Director David Yates, of course, is no stranger to the Potterverse, having directed the last four of the seven movies.
Fantastic Beasts, however, is probably his most enjoyable one yet. Freed from the shackles of having to remain reasonably faithful to a well-established book, Yates has crafted a movie that not only expands the Potterverse substantially, but also proves that this particular cinematic universe is actually a lot more interesting when the focus is NOT on Harry Potter. Watching the Harry Potter movies, you always got the sense that the Potterverse had the potential to be bigger than its titular character, and this is proof of that.
As the film is based on a J.K. Rowling screenplay rather than a novel, there is a certain fluidity to the proceedings that the Harry Potter movies didn’t have (even the ones that Yates himself directed). Being set in America rather than Britain also helps – the portrayal of the wizarding community feels fresh, yet familiar, and isn’t too bogged down by the influence of the earlier films.
While the cast is much smaller, each character is given a lot more room to develop. Again, it probably helps that the characters were not already fully realised in a book, so the actors basically had a blank canvas to work with.
Redmayne plays Newt Scamander to perfection – suitably geeky and shy, personality-wise, while retaining an underlying sense of confidence in his own abilities at all times. Fogler’s No-Maj character is another inspired piece of casting – in the wrong hands, Jacob could have so easily been the bumbling slapstick comic relief, but Fogler plays him with such genuine wide-eyed innocence and charm that you can’t help but like him.
While there IS a larger plot that runs throughout the movie, the biggest charm of Fantastic Beasts is when it stays true to its title: I would very gladly watch an entire movie, or even four more, of Newt just running around collecting his beloved beasts.
His interaction with the fantastic beasts he has in his suitcase are the highlights of the movie, as Redmayne exudes infectious joy and wonder that make each of those beasts, large or small, seem even more wondrous.
The question now, however, is with four more movies to come (all directed by Yates), will we be seeing more of Newt? Will he still be the focus of the future movies? Or is this merely the precursor to a more streamlined storyline that will lead towards a showdown between Albus Dumbledore and the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald?
And will this all lead us closer and closer, Star Wars prequel style, to the rise of Voldemort and the birth of Harry Potter?
These are questions Yates and Rowling will have to address in the future. For now, just sit back and enjoy this magical beastly ride.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell