Ok, so the title’s a bit hyperbolic, but can you honestly tell me you wouldn’t have given this review the same title? Without having done any research, I bet there’s a fair few reviews of J.K. Rowling’s latest look into the wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them using this exact structure. Titles aside, does the beginning to this series reignite the magical fire of Harry Potter, or does it fail to cast a single spark like a damp Squib?
Regular followers of this blog (all six of you) may have read my thoughts on Cursed Child, and my disappointment at that certainly had an impact on my expectations of Fantastic Beasts. Maybe it was the faint idea that J.K. Rowling had lost her touch, perhaps it’s the fact that it’s the first Harry Potter movie since the original series ended, or maybe it’s the seemingly odd decision to make five (five?) films about that tiny pamphlet (five!) written years and years ago (five!!!!). And so I headed to the lovely cinema in Norwich (Cinema City. I wish they paid me to write that) with relatively low expectations, which itself felt weird. After all, this was new Harry Potter universe material! Under other circumstances my hype levels would have gone through the roof as soon as it was announced, yet I was pretty subdued going into this one. I’d heard mixed reviews, didn’t really like the fact that Johnny Depp was going to be prominent throughout the series, and as mentioned above Cursed Child had left me in a bit of a downer regarding Harry Potter as a whole. Honestly, I just wanted this to be decent. I decided that if I could describe it as ‘fun’ when I came out, I would be happy.
In all honesty, Fantastic Beasts blew my expectations out the water. Maybe not quite the ‘fantastic’ in the title but it was definitely ‘good’, but maybe not for the reasons you’re expecting. It, for the most part, really didn’t feel like a Harry Potter film. Most of the magic is non-verbal, which may well be because of Rowling’s expansion to the lore emphasising this for American wizards, so you’re not getting your Expelliarmuses and your Stupefys. Instead, the magic takes a little bit of a back seat to focus on, predictably, the beasts. Here we get a nice variety, from the massive, city-damaging Erumpent to Newt Scamander’s constant companions in the Bowtruckle and the the Swooping Evil. Of course, the show-stealer was the Niffler, which will undoubtedly bring in millions in toy sales and rightly so, because ohmygoddidyouseeitsfaceitssoadorable. Personally I thought the CGI looked good for the most part, save for a couple of moments (Kowalski standing in the snowy area of the trunk looks so fake), although my film student companion who knows far more about these things was not that impressed in this regard. I even managed to enjoy the romantic subplots, which in similar films may be considered ‘useless’ (I’m looking at you Jurassic World), but here both mostly made sense in the context of the story and we got a very nice moment at the end between Newt and Tina.
The acting was also of a good standard, with particular praise having to go to Katherine Waterson (Tina), who perfectly portrayed the determined-yet-exasperated feelings that I’m sure any of us would have had if we were magical police officers in a city that hates witches where a bunch of mostly-dangerous magical animals had escaped into a world of Muggles. Fantastic Beasts was also my first opportunity to see the nation’s sweetheart Eddie Redmayne actually do some acting, and while I’m still not totally convinced that he’s not just Hugh Grant with a different face he does a good job here, especially when someone pointed out to me that he’s playing Newt as a person with social anxiety, which once pointed out to me was very clear. The film succeeded at blending its established stars (Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller) with some new faces who should get more opportunities based on their performances here (Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol), which is always nice to see in blockbusters.
Of course, it’s not without its problems. Weirdly there’s certain points where it feels like they’re not using magic enough, especially when they’re trying to catch a cockroach and just flat-out refusing to use Accio even though that would fix their problem much more easily. A few of the references to the main Harry Potter series seem a little forced, with the one that jumps to mind is when they namedrop Albus Dumbledore when mentioning Newt’s attendance of Hogwarts. Obviously some references were fine, but there just a couple too many, which makes it seem like the creators are a little afraid to let the film stand on its own.
But it must be said that these are pretty minor nitpicks and don’t particularly impair the enjoyment of the film. I said earlier that I just wanted to be able to describe it as ‘fun’, and I’m pleased that I can say that and much more. It’s a very solid start to a series that it seems many people weren’t that invested in, and should attract both longtime Potter die-hards and new fans to the series. There’s enough there to make it feel familiar but is also a perfectly capable standalone, since you don’t really (some spells aside) need a lot of knowledge of the main series to understand what’s going on. Fantastic Beasts may not be quite up to ‘fantastic’ levels, but it’s definitely an enjoyable family film that I would highly recommend.