Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell
Running time: 133 minutes
Release Date: November 18th
Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them looks the part but you can almost hear the grinding gears of a franchise-building machine as the action unfolds. The Marvelisation of cinema is obvious in this Harry Potter prequel and there are plenty of familiar beats to the film. So you get your reluctant heroes, plenty of exposition, an action-packed climax and a villainous presence that doesn’t quite live up to its early billing.
The story starts with Newt (Redmayne), an English wizard who rocks up to 1920s New York with a suitcase full of magical beasts. What can possibly go wrong? Well, the inevitable happens and the tensions between humans and the magical community threaten to bubble over if he can’t find his missing menagerie. In order to salvage the situation, he enlists the help of a local witch Tina (Waterston) and a human/no-maj called Kowalski (Fogler). The trio also have to contend with a crazy anti-witch cult, Colin Farrell munching through scenery as a wizard called Graves, and a murderous evil force that’s terrorising the city.
The world-building efforts get off to a great start with the depiction of Prohibition-era New York, which is almost like an additional character. The film is a visual treat and director David Yates seamlessly blends reality and fantasy in a way that’s entirely believable. The titular beasts are well rendered and they steal more than one scene in the movie. They look great, they’re cuter than a kitten playlist on YouTube, and some of them have more personality than the human leads.
Which brings us on to Newt, who reveals at one point that people don’t like him. Even by the end of the film, it’s hard to be entirely unsympathetic to their viewpoint. Redmayne is a fine actor but he struggles to win you over as Newt. He certainly throws himself into the role as the diffident hero, displaying some impressive physical acting along the way. It’s just that Newt’s only defining feature is that he really, really likes scary creatures. So he’s basically a tweedier, weedier version of Steve Irwin – without the personality. Waterson’s character is also a bit on the damp side, which leaves it up to Fogler to provide some much needed personality and comic relief. His flirtatious relationship with Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) also brings a bit of badly needed warmth to the film.
Fantastic Beasts‘ efforts to reference deeper themes ends up falling a little bit flat. It’s hard to get too worked up about the threat that witch-hunting zealots pose to the magical community. After all, the magical community all pack wands and can warp space and reality on a whim.
Full disclosure – being a newbie to the Potterverse meant that I was oblivious to the various Potter references that drew appreciative reactions from the rest of the audience. And it could be that it helps to have some context to immerse you in what’s happening. There’s certainly no shortage of things happening.
There are some great scenes in Fantastic Beasts but it sometimes feels as if the film’s being pulled in too many different directions. There’s so much going on that you never really get to know the main characters and there’s no beating heart beneath the film’s shiny exterior. There’s also a particularly jarring deus ex machina that’s pretty hard to get past. A younger audience will love the cute beasties, the gentle humour and the beautifully rendered world. Fans of the franchise will probably also enjoy a film that’s clearly got one foot in a pre-existing world. For the rest, it’s likely to be a mixed bag that doesn’t offer anything quite as fantastic as what’s in Newt’s suitcase.