There may be no more Harry Potter books, but money must still be made. This is why 2016 has featured two Potter or Potter-adjacent properties: the sequel play The Cursed Child, and now the set-seventy-years-earlier film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them expands the canon under the awkward promotional subtitle “From the Wizarding World of Harry Potter”. Apart from being a guaranteed money-spinner, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a wholly entertaining movie which, free from the burden of adaptation, is entirely its own thing.
New York City, 1926. Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) has a case full of fantastic beasts. Upon bumping into aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, Custody), he accidentally sets them free. Scamander has to team up with Jacob and avoid the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), being alternately helped and hindered by magical sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston, Steve Jobs) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol, Between Us).
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first film in the franchise to feature a screenplay written by creator J.K. Rowling. For that matter, it’s Rowling’s first screenplay ever. She has clearly learned something in the fifteen years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first hit screens; Fantastic Beasts plays almost as a challenge, daring the audience to appreciate its obvious resemblance to its antecedents while embracing its differences.
It cannot be exaggerated that, although Fantastic Beasts is distinctly child friendly, its cast are primarily adults. Redmayne exercises a charisma that he frequently has to keep in check — particularly when the majority of his work is targeted at the Oscar market — but the true finds of the film are Fogler and Sudol, who have deep wells of natural charm, and are only required to support the project rather than drive it and are thus given more free reign. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Colin Farrell (TV’s True Detective) as the transparently ambiguous high-up in MACUSA Percival Graves, and Ezra Miller (Trainwreck) as the criminally coiffed and tragically named Credence Barebone, both of whom lend an air of depth to hazily written roles.
Visually, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is easily the most accomplished of the series — and not merely because it has been five years since the last Harry Potter film. More than any of the others, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them contains the spirit of wonder that is essential to a movie based on magic and fantastic beasts. The beasts are uniformly delightful, from the niffler (a kleptomaniac platypus/vole hybrid) to the serpentine dragon occamy. Action scenes have evolved, as one might expect from fully trained combat wizards, and are both imaginative and exciting. Things are good in the Wizarding World, and veteran Potter helmsman David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) has refined the craft to an art.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t quite perfect; there’s a throwaway storyline about a presidential candidate and his newspaper baron father (Jon Voight) that is woefully underdeveloped, possibly in aid of future entries (of which there will be many) and, although the president of the MACUSA is an African American woman, almost every job that would have gone to a person of colour in the human world equivalent is instead given to a house elf. It’s a weak allegory, and particularly bad when the protagonists visit a speakeasy where a darker-skinned house elf is singing jazz for the entertainment of tourist wizards; even a mafioso type is just a large, fat house elf voiced by Ron Perlman (TV’s Hand of God). It would have been easy to combat this by casting more diversely outside of the Wizard United Nations scene, but at least you can say “it’s 1926”; still, this universe is not quite so progressive as people would like to believe, and Rowling loves to traffic in stereotypes both harmful and trite (keep an eye out for the evil albino chestnut!).
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first of a threatened five that could almost certainly be parlayed into a franchise of the order of the Bond films. This is a working, Potter free, anthology form that can be used indefinitely, and though it has some niggles, it more than makes up for them with delightful nifflers.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opened in Australian cinemas on November 17, 2016.
Directed by: David Yates.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherin Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Norton, Jon Voight and Colin Farrell.