Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler
Director: David Yates
Running Time: 133 mins
Synopsis: In 1926 New York City, a young magizoologist by the name of Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives with a case full of magical creatures. After a suitcase mix up some of his creatures are unleashed causing mayhem for him and the American Magical society, which coincidentally are suffering from unexplained attacks on their secrecy. A new movie universe is unveiled.
It doesn’t take a wizard to predict that after $10 billion in movie tickets and 400 million book copies sold, that the Harry Potter franchise would continue. Following a hugely successful West End stage show, of which getting tickets for is one of the entertainment worlds biggest challenges, JK Rowling announced that she would be writing her first script for an adaptation of the pretty slim spin off book, Fantastic Beasts (seriously it’s like 30 pages long), and that it would be not one but three films. The cynic in you may question the true intentions here, and the added announcement that 3 films would become 5, brings the economic desires to the fore. The one boon was that Rowling has never struck me as a money grabbing cynic, and the deep rooted mythology that she has created with Potter lends itself to numerous stories. So does this first step into a new area of the Wizarding World feel worthy enough to take up our movie screens for at least the next 10 years?
Well, yes and no. Bringing together the same behind the scenes team as the Potter movies, including director David Yates, whom directed the last four movies and will direct all 5 of these, is an ideal step in order to make this feel akin to its movie brother. The American 20s setting though helps to give some colourful differences, and the production design is breathtaking. Beautiful costumes, immense sets and as much in camera effects work as possible helps to give Beasts a weight and lends each scene some wonderful background details that warrant repeat viewing. There is one cravat though, with a mega budget and a lot of assorted creatures to bring to life it is unfortunate that the titular beasts are more often created in a computer than the hand crafted delights of the Potter movies. Work that was so effective that the exhibition that houses them is still going strong in its fourth year. This leaves the creatures feeling a touch on the soulless side, with the cast doing their best to add a sense of believability. A few hit the right spot, a small hedgehog style creature (a gold loving Nifler) is comedy gold, and the little tree friend (a Bowtruckle, once again Rowling names her animals effectively) that Newt keeps about his person elicited numerous ‘aahs’ during the screening. But all too many of them are cleverly designed but ultimately a little cold.
The Beasts are just a fraction of the story, mainly utilised in the first half of the film for some funny, lighthearted escapades, although the sight of Redmayne making rhino noises and jumping around is hard to forget. They give way to the real meat of the tale. Hinted at throughout via Colin Farrell’s auror (a magical detective essentially) dealing with rising fear from the humans (whimsically called No-Majs in the U.S) via Samantha Morton’s abusive Mary Lou. Morton is brilliant here, giving Mary Lou a real believable menace. One look at the rising anger and hate towards other cultures in America at the moment is evident of where Rowling found her inspiration. Morton is just one part of a truly terrific cast. Eschewing the well-known creme de la creme of British acting greats that the Potter movies sucked in, here Yates has gone for more exciting up and coming talent. Katherine Waterston proves her star potential as Porpentina Goldstein. Cast out from the magical community, she sees Newt’s arrival as a chance to work her way back into their good graces, and gives a vulnerable performance. Never the helpless female in distress though, she steps up when it counts and her relationship with Newt is finely sketched.
Alison Sudol is a delightful concoction as Porpentina’s flightful sister. Softly spoken, eccentric and kind hearted, she also has a tough as nails backbone that makes her indelible to watch. Other members of the cast deserve a mention, Ezra Miller is quietly rage filled, Farrell plays it low key but sadly the script has his motivations so secretive in order to fulfil a last act twist that his character never really grabs, and the background players add colour. Especially a mo-capped Ron Perlman, who is always a welcome presence.
The standout though is not Redmayne (more on him later) but Dan Fogler as the first real non-magic lead Rowling has delivered. His expressions and reactions as he finds himself in this magical realm are brilliantly funny. A man seemingly forgotten by the world, with a simple dream of opening a bakery, he is the beating heart of the film. It is a performance of real warmth and results in some real tear inducing moments towards the end. The relationship that builds between him and Sudol is unexpectedly touching, with them unlocking something each other that makes it all to easy to root for them. I sincerely hope he returns for the next films as he makes a bigger impression than our lead hero.
Leading us into Eddie Redmayne as Newt. I like Redmayne as a performer, but he is getting dangerously close to being a one note actor. Barring his mentally hilarious role in Jupiter Ascending, he tends to lean towards aloof restrained bookish types with a tendency to struggle in social situations. As it turns out this is not far removed from him outside of the movies, just watch any chat show interview with him to see his trademark brand of awkwardness. This makes him hard to warm to in Fantastic Beasts. Throughout the first half he speaks in hushed tones, that’s when he speaks (he has very little dialogue to start with), which results in a little bit of frustration when he resists filling in the rest of us as to what’s going on. It’s not all average though. Rowling makes a nice choice in making Newt come alive whenever he enters his case full of animals. His eyes light up as he regales us with fascinating details about his menagerie, and you feel a genuine sense of connection with them. There are also tantalising hints of a troubled back story, I’m sure the sequels will tap into this, and Redmayne gives these moments a touch of heartbreak. It is just a shame that he is the least interesting character in his own film.
The real hero here is JK Rowling herself. With no previous screenplay writing experience she has written a film of steady pace and, as per her novels, layers of deeper themes. Touching on ideas of acceptance, persecution, abuse and being true to yourself. A new concept called an Obscurus, which is what is unleashed when a young wizard represses his/her powers, is a sly nod to such potent themes as sexuality and maturity. Rowling has always excelled at marrying these concepts within a framework of whimsy and fantasy. But, and this is a big but, there is, amongst the set-pieces and humour, a very slight story. It strives so much to set up a world that it forgets to tell a meaningful story. There is almost an odd middle ground it falls into of setting up sequels and yet with not enough material to sustain one film let alone many many more. The final battle culminates in a revelation that, although surprising (a future big bad played by a big name actor, you may know who I am referring too), is ultimately weightless. There is none of the slow foreboding that made He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named so effective. Plus the less said about the awful exposition dump that opens the film the better.
I have faith in JK Rowling though. She is one of our finest world builders, with the time and locations (film number 2 will be set partially in Paris) offering the prospect of real excitement, particularly for Potter nuts like myself. But please don’t let it be called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 2!
Verdict: Fantastic Beasts offers huge entertainment, helped along by a terrific cast, high production values and a witty script, but is lacking in a real meaty story and too much world building to truly thrill. It is just about good enough to make 5 films sound tantalising rather than threatening, and that is pretty magical.