DIR: David Yates • WRI: J.K. Rowling • PRO: David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Tim Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Rick Senat,Lionel Wigram • DOP: Philippe Rousselot • ED: Mark Day • DES: Stuart Craig, James Hambidge • MUS: James Newton Howard • CAST: Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sees J.K. Rowling capitalising on the magic that made her Harry Potter novels and subsequent films a success, this time adapting the script herself. Set in 1922 New York, Oscar-Winner Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a wizarding naturalist whose magical creatures escape and begin to wreak havoc in the Big Apple. His quest to find them leads him to cross paths with magician policewoman Tina Goldstein (Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston), her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a muggle (or as the Americans say “no-maj”) factory worker, Jacob (a great Dan Fogler). The foursome’s attempts to recover Newt’s animals lead them to uncover an evil force plaguing New York.
The first thirty to forty minutes of the film are delightful, with Rowling and returning franchise director David Yeats doing a terrific job crafting the world of the central characters. His camera will often turn away from the protagonists and gaze out upon the magical wonders of their surroundings. Although, plenty of what the viewer sees feels familiar to Harry Potter fans – photos in newspapers which are constantly moving – the New York period setting, filled with dingy alleyways and glamorous Jazz Age speakeasys, is consistently exciting to explore. Although I’m firmly anti-3D due to how dark it makes every film appear, Yates uses it to his advantage here, immersing the audience in the film’s setting. As his camera sweeps through the metropolis, large buildings seem to protrude off the screen towards the viewer, causing me, on at least two occasions, to jump.
There is also a charming playfulness to the film in this opening act, with almost every joke landing. The titular fantastic beasts venturing through New York have a real slapstick edge to them. For instance, one of Newt’s creatures, which resembles a hamster, is obsessed with shiny objects and ends up rummaging through banks and jewellery stores for coins and jewels, half destroying them in the process. Redmayne and Fogler’s characters attempts to retrieve the animal, which make it seem to bystanders that they are the one’s actually doing the robbing, are genuinely funny. Fogler, in particular, has such excellent comic delivery, responding to everything that is happening with a warm blend of awe and fear.
However, like so many recent blockbusters – Doctor Strange, Miss Peregrine, to a lesser extent Suicide Squad – within Fantastic Beasts, one enjoys the characters and their interactions so much (Sudol and Fogler have wonderful chemistry) that when the plot kicks in suddenly, it loses some of its charm. It doesn’t help that Rowling’s screenplay is far too crowded, pitting the four main players against almost half a dozen villains. There is Samantha Morton as the leader of an anti-witch organisation, her often-bullied son (Ezra Miller), a brilliant and against-type Colin Farrell as Tina’s shady boss, Jon Voight as a no-maj of great influence with a vendetta against the magic community and a malevolent destructive force called “The Obscurus” which feeds off hate. Although all these strands are intermittently interesting, particularly the latter which emerges from witches suppressing their power (Rowling’s social commentary on segregation no doubt), each one isn’t given enough time to be adequately explored. Morton suffers the most from this with her great talents being utterly wasted.
Aside from some Marvel-esque setting up of future instalments from the Fantastic Beasts franchise (a reference to Dumbeldore, a Johnny Depp cameo), the cluttered screenplay is the only real problem with the film. The performances by the lead four are enjoyable and the characters are certainly endearing. Yates’ action is always good, if unremarkable and Rowling does for long periods, mainly the beginning and the ending, capture the magic that made her novels the rousing success they are. As I left my screening, I heard an excited boy ask his father, “What was your favourite beast!”. On the basis of this, it will clearly work for its target demographic. That said, a more focused screenplay and a greater reliance on character wouldn’t go amiss in the obligatory sequel.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is released 18th November 2016