Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them | David Yates | November 18, 2016
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of five planned prequel films to the Harry Potter series, introduces us to the Wizarding World before the Boy Who Lived, and to magical culture in America. This much-anticipated film, loosely based on the book of the same name by JK Rowling (who also penned the screenplay to the film), is our first cinematic trip back to the Potterverse since 2012’s Deathly Hallows: Part II, and fans are eager to return. In many ways, this film will please Potterheads and Muggles (excuse me, “No-Majs”) alike, but still falls into a few familiar prequel series traps.
Fantastic Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) whom astute Potter connoisseurs will recognize as the author of the “Fantastic Beasts” text within the novels. A bit of an oddball, Newt has a deep love of magical creatures, and has arrived in New York City with a suitcase full of the beasts. Unfortunately for Newt, magical creatures are banned in New York because … reasons. Not long after his arrival, a few of his creatures escape, and he must find them before the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States) can destroy them. He is assisted by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Auror trying to reclaim her position within the MACUSA; her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a flapper skilled in the art of Legilimancy; and a No-Maj named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who just stumbled into all of this.
Redmayne’s performance is one of the highlights of the film; Scamander’s childlike enthusiasm and love for his creatures is infectious. The scene where he shows Jacob (and the audience) the creatures inside the suitcase is one of the strongest in the film. The magic of the early Potter films was in the discovery of the Wizarding World, and there are moments of discovery here. The creatures are wonderful to look at; some adorable, some magnificent, and all imaginative. However, the titular beasts don’t drive the story. There are really two plots going on here: the hunt for the creatures, and the villain plot. Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) doesn’t appreciate the magical law which keeps the Wizarding World hidden from the No-Majs, viewing it as a form of oppression. A prophecy (which came from … somewhere) tells of a powerful magical child that Graves seeks to assist in his cause, and he feels a boy named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the adopted son of a witch hunter fanatic, can help him find this child. Some of these plot elements are not clearly explained, and the villain plot is barely connected to Newt and his beasts. This makes the plot feel somewhat disjointed; the need to set up the next four movies came at the expense of telling this story, which occasionally feels rushed – as the hunt for the creatures is actually wrapped up before the climax of the film. However, this does not mean this movie was full of padding (Hobbit flashbacks are coming to mind), and it does a good job of setting up this part of the world and the characters.
In summary, Fantastic Beasts is a welcome return to a familiar world, but still clearly the first in a five-part franchise. It’s well-acted, visually appealing, and creative; both fans and non-fans of the original films should feel enchanted. Here’s hoping the magic lasts through the next four installments (and that we’ll eventually get used to not saying “Muggle.”)