It’s not easy to make a Harry Potter film without Harry Potter. Director David Yates, the veteran of now five J.K. Rowling adaptations and better-placed than anyone else to continue the franchise, can rest easy; the series hasn’t floundered with this new-look entry muggles everywhere can enjoy.
Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, a title and author Rowling probably thought up in a matter of seconds, now have their own feature length film, set in 1920s New York, long before anyone had ever heard of Weaslys’ Wizarding Wheezes or Bulgaria carelessly lost the Quidditch World Cup to Ireland. Here Newt (Eddie Redmayne) ventures into New York one morning with his bag full of magical creatures before they unceremoniously, and predictably, escape.
It’s a mark of just how much the producers were concerned the legions of fans wouldn’t think this was a natural extension of the Potter series that they pulled the same trick J.J. Abrams deployed with The Force Awakens, albeit more subtlety; integrating so many aspects of the original story into their new telling.
There’s Newt, a fish out of water (ha ha) who has to navigate an unfamiliar wizarding world, immediately stumbling into his bumbling yet loyal companion Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler who alongside legilimens (mind-reader) Alison Sudol almost steals the whole movie. They are soon joined by the earnest if socially awkward Tina (Katherine Waterson), a clearly talented witch who likes to do things by the book and soon gains the trust of her male counterparts. Together, they must confront the threat of an emerging Grindelwald, thanklessly appearing in a 30-second cameo, and the yet unclear motives of the Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, who is evidently having a lot of fun).
Redmayne, at least on paper the best thing the film has going for it, if charming settles into a one-note performance for much of the film. Someone who has proved his immeasurable worth as a performer in recent years, whether it be due to limited direction or his character possessing no real depth, at least in this chapter, beyond his undeniable love for magical beasts, is here regrettably chewed up the scenery, with Redmayne’s singular shtick barely registering alongside the much more affable Fogler.
The trio’s tracking the beasts and various antics to secure them are a great deal of fun, as is the prospect, for any Harry Potter fan, of seeing a whole new dimension of the world we know and love vividly brought to life. The ham-fisted and painfully obvious attempts, of which there are many, to set this film up for sequels and an ever-expanding universe are as groan-inducing as they are ill-judged, with Scamandar at one point staring wistfully at a picture that will inevitably play a greater role in entries to come. The final reveal of Grindelwald, belated and all too brief, is not much better.
If the ‘surprise’ hasn’t already been ruined for you, the actor who plays Grindelwald is exactly the actor you would expect to play Grindelwald. Ask yourself – we need someone to look a bit ridiculous, say outlandish stuff, appear at least a little menacing and feel comfortable surrounded by magical, fantastical things and lots of CGI. He hasn’t done anything that great for a while, so it’s no stretch of the imagination that he rocks up here, however fleetingly.
Lacking the engaging over-arching narrative and relentless villain that anchored the original 7 books, with only minor allusions to a greater story there’s nothing to suggest that this new series’ creators have a structured or at all compelling larger tale to spin beyond this iteration. Venturing into Marvel and DC territory, the final sequence, the oft-seen destruction of a cityscape by some unwieldy force, will be about as memorable for most audience members as it will be for the various muggles who following the film’s events will inevitably have their memories wiped.
A great deal of fun for Potter fans and even the uninitiated regardless of its flaws, not everyone who watches Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to be left wanting more.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in cinemas now