Let’s face it; Warner Bros were never going to let the Harry Potter cash cow just lie after the series wrapped up. They were sitting on one of the biggest movie franchises in history, and in an era when Disney owns seemingly every other one, they were going to resurrect it sooner or later. Considering that, we should at least be grateful that WB didn’t just straight-up reboot the franchise, and that we’re getting more of a spin-off instead. Not only that, J.K. Rowling herself is actually the screenwriter, and David Yates, who ultimately became the steward of the Potter series, helming 4 of the 8 films, is back to direct. Sounds promising yes…well hold your hippogriffs…
The Harry Potter series, from about film 3 onwards was the first time I can recall seeing a movie in which the filmmakers decide to just assume everyone watching had already read the books and was familiar with the world. It was an interesting choice, and one that lead to those movies being more streamlined, but I still don’t really know how they played to people who never read the books. Fantastic Beasts is in a different position, while it is nominally based on a book, it was just a short faux-textbook Rowling write for charity in 2001, and there was no storyline to it. This means that for the first time, long-term Potter fans have a chance to see a narrative play out on film that they haven’t been able to read previously.
This was the big selling point of Fantastic Beasts for myself anyway, my fandom Harry Potter , which I adored as a child, dwindled considerably with the publication of the 5th book, Order of the Phoenix (which I have often referred to as Potter’s Phantom Menace) and didn’t much improve with the subsequent two, but that all changed this year when I read the script for The Cursed Child, the stage sequel co-written by Rowling that was so good it completely reignited my interest in the series. To my previous point though, Fantastic Beasts, a prequel/spin-off with new lead characters, is not especially welcoming to new viewers at all. It operates again with a presumption that everyone knows about how magic works in what is now being called J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, and mentions events and characters, some of which have great importance, which will mean absolutely nothing to viewers who aren’t familiar with the Harry Potter series. I’m not quite sure whether this is completely a negative point however, I don’t want the film to be loaded with exposition, but it shouldn’t require background research either. There must be some happy medium; this is supposed to be the start of a new ongoing narrative within the world after all.
The new lead for the series is Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a British wizard and expert on magical creatures (not to mention future author of the fictional textbook) who arrives in 1920s New York carrying nothing but a briefcase. Due to a familiar plot contrivance, his briefcase gets mixed-up with that of aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who is a “No-Maj” (American muggle). Soon, he’s in trouble as several magical creatures have escaped from his briefcase and he’s tasked with rounding them up on the sly alongside recently demoted ‘Magical Congress of the United States of America’ (MACUSA, The US Ministry)employee Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).
While J.K. Rowling’s fantasy worlds did occasionally seem derivative, arguably her greatest strength as a writer was populating them with many wonderful and relatable characters. In Fantastic Beasts, I’m afraid to say that she has singularly failed to repeat this. Scamander is a very boring protagonist, and Redmayne brings nothing to him. I had hoped that a magical creatures’ expert would at least have some enthusiasm for his work, a David Attenborough or even Steve Irwin-type, but Redmayne plays Scamander as a timid reluctant character that just isn’t compelling at all. I’d far rather see the OTT Redmayne of Jupiter Ascending than his lacklustre work here.
Making matters worse, he has zero chemistry with Waterston, who herself is a similarly ineffectual co-lead. I had actually hoped that they might reveal that Scamander was gay at some point as it would not only have been thematically suitable (more on that later) but would have meant they weren’t trying to set up a romance between the lifeless couple, which is unfortunately exactly what they end up doing.
Rounding out the group, the No-Maj Kowalski could have been more of an audience surrogate character, and maybe the film would have been better from his perspective? As it is he has no reason to stick around for the entirety of the story yet does anyway, mainly tasked with comic relief. Queenie is treated similarly, but does serve some vital story function, mainly due to her possessing mind-reading powers that could surely have been more useful throughout all proceedings. At least Sudol tries to give more of an energetic performance as the bubbly sidekick, but her primary arc is an inexplicable attraction to the dumbfounded Kowalski.
Maybe the most damning thing I can say about Fantastic Beasts is that if these are our new leads, our new Harry/Ron/Hermione, I’m left with no particular desire to see their further adventures. Their main story about rounding up the escaped animals, some of which are entertaining, some not so much, is never particularly interesting anyhow, and reaches its nadir in a ridiculous scene in which Redmayne performs a sort-of mating ritual to trap a giant Lava/Rhino thing. Even worse, when we first meet Scamander he demonstrates that the briefcase has a safety mechanism rendering it both unremarkable in appearance to muggles and openable without risk of creatures escaping. Quite why he doesn’t keep this active the whole time is truly confounding.
Thankfully, the film is not entirely about them, there’s a whole separate and far more intriguing story going on as well. This involves a cult-like group referred to as “The Second Salemers”, an extremist collective who seem aware of, or at least suspect that magical people exist and wish to expose and exterminate them. They’re led by a domineering Samantha Morton, who mercilessly beats her troubled teenage son Credence (Ezra Miller), who appears to be a ‘Squib’ (non-magical person of magical parentage) she adopted.
Credence is also in secret contact with MACUSA Security Director Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who is offering to rescue the abused teen in exchange for helping him but this only seems to give Credence further troubles. Their meetings in dark alleys are shot by Yates with a mixture of spy-thriller intrigue and uncomfortable homoerotic tension that proves quite memorable. Even with their limited screen time, Farrell and Miller leave far more of an impression than any of the leads.
The sub-text of the film is fairly clear, surrounding the persecution of minorities. There are times when Rowling throws in some really on-the-nose dialogue such as a line in which Scamander expresses his outrage that the MACUSA forbids marriage between magical and non-magical people, but on the whole it adds a new layer to the fantasy adventure surface. I don’t think it’s quite there yet, but it’s something I’d think could be explored further, and the film reminds us that this comes from both magical and non-magical people here.
This concept also relates to one of the best new ideas Rowling brings to her mythos, that of the Obscurus – a violent entity that is released from magical children who are forced to suppress their abilities. One plays a vital role in this film which I can’t really discuss without spoilers, but the film becomes considerably better whenever the concept comes into play.
In fact, it’s introduced during one of the other highlights of the film; a scene in which Scamander gives Kowalski a tour of his briefcase; which is revealed to contain a variety of environments for storing different creatures. It’s wonderfully imaginative touches like these that really made the early Potter books shine, and as great as this moment was, I wish the film had more like it.
The other really-stand-out new magic sequence here is of a distantly darker flavour. Though also being an opening chapter to a saga, this does differ from the early Potter books in not being so geared towards a younger audience. Obviously the leads are all adults, but this is a film involving murder, child abuse and literal witch-hunts. One moment in particular though, in which we’re shown first-hand how the MACUSA goes about executing criminals is something else, and I’d imagine, really quite frightening for younger viewers.
While the two main plots somewhat converge (Scamander in tangentially related to the Obscurus goings-on) this leads to a climax that manages to pack in a surprise but not an especially welcome one in a moment that severely needs to be addressed in any future instalments (again, it shouldn’t have to rely on this). The fate on one character may prove quite infuriating to many (I was more disappointed by it), and then it all gets wrapped-up with a little touch of Deus Ex-Machina that doesn’t make sense even in this magical world.
For what it’s worth, I don’t rate any of the Potter films especially highly, and on first viewing I felt Fantastic Beasts to be about on a par with most of them, so maybe hardcore fans will get more out of this. We know there’s going to be more, and there’s potential to draw from, but overall this is not an especially promising start for the next cinematic saga in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.