By Evelyn Sweeney
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Harry Potter fans have been going frantic this month after the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It acts as a loose prequel to the Harry Potter series, based on a Hogwarts textbook which J.K. Rowling released for Comic Relief in 2001. Their excitement is understandable, as it’s difficult to see how Fantastic Beasts could disappoint their expectations.
J.K. Rowling (Screenwriter) and David Yates (Director) throw us into the Wizarding World across the Atlantic in a 1920′s New York. We follow Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a ‘Magizoologist’, who accidentally lets loose a number of magical creatures that he must retrieve before any ‘No-Majs’ (Non-Magical Folk) become aware of their existence.
One of Fantastic Beasts most charming features is that it showcases J.K Rowling’s debut in screenwriting. Although at times it can feel a little too rapidly paced and even cluttered, it is something that works marvellously when considering that, for the first time, fans are viewing a film set in a very different section of a franchise with very little prior knowledge. Simply put, Rowling has created a huge world and capturing it is a grand task in itself. This is especially welcoming after the tragedy that was the publication of The Cursed Child, which proved that it’s incredibly difficult to impersonate Rowling’s work without it becoming a disappointing read for long time fans.
The same sense of familiarity was supported by the director, David Yates, who was also responsible for the last four Harry Potter Films. As the themes within Fantastic Beasts are much darker than the ones we’re used to from the ‘Potterverse’, Yates’ does a great job of creating a familiar experience through Fantastic Beasts themes, while still managing to effectively launch an entirely new story and film series. He includes an exploration of death, which has always been a key theme in Rowling’s writing, yet is depicted much more prominently and some would argue even twisted, in Fantastic Beasts. Whether or not the Anti-Fascist political statements were a deliberate reflection on current events or not, the parallels between the current American politics and the film are startling, to say the least. From a clock depicting various threat levels in the Magical Congress building similar to those of America’s current threat levels, to the newspaper headlines using phrases like “terrorist attack” and “where will he strike next”. Even with these more serious tones, the film maintains a light-hearted feel, largely more so than the later Harry Potter films, but this movement into darker territory adds another layer to the Potterverse and gives it’s villains a more realistic feel, whilst retaining it’s enjoyable and amusing moments.
Protagonist Newt Scamander, having been expelled from Hogwarts because of an ‘accident’, something Newt apparently “excels in”, comes to America, with a bottomless suitcase full of magical creatures. His goal is to study them and eventually create a book, that will teach the wizarding world how to care for magical animals. Redmayne excels in his performance of Mr Scamander, a delightfully eccentric and quirky wizard who sets himself apart from any of Rowling’s other characters. While Newt Scamander rarely strikes you as a logical character, he is a true Hufflepuff, demonstrated through his extreme loyalty and dedication, not only to his work, but those around him. The character chooses not to just rely on himself but welcomes the support and love his friends give him, once again bringing forward key themes present within the Harry Potter series. His character occasionally felt a little underdeveloped, largely due to the sometimes rushed nature of the film but it’s likely he’ll be fleshed out in later films.
The differences between the two protagonists of the Potterverse series – Harry and Newt – become very apparent as Fantastic Beasts progresses. While they may both be introverted heroes with clear morals, their actions differ wildly. Although Newt seems vastly more comfortable around his mystical beasts than he does around humans, he never questions that he can rely on his friends to help him. Whereas Harry was constantly battling with himself, and felt immeasurable guilt when anyone was hurt in an attempt to help him.
We’re later introduced to Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a demoted Auror that works at ‘MACUSA’ (Magical Congress of the USA), who although usually rule abiding, is prepared to take risks in order to stand up for what she believes in. Her mind-reading sister, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), contrasts dramatically to Tina. She’s confident, endearing, and flirtatious, where Tina is quiet and reserved. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj who is accidentally thrown into Scamamnder’s world expertly, helping to give the often ridiculous events of the film a more grounded feel. Queenie’s and Jacob’s relationship is very much typical of Potter romances, depicting the two as soul mates throughout. Perhaps it will allow Rowling to further explore the intolerance embedded within the American Wizarding Community towards No-Maj’s, or Muggles, as they were known as in the Potter series. It also allows for the series to further develop our knowledge of Half-Bloods, a theme that ran throughout the Harry Potter films, yet was rarely directly addressed.
There are a series of antagonists in the film including Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry Auror with a dark secret, The Second Salemers, including Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller), a troubled child who is abused by Barebone and desperate for an escape. There’s also Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who supports the idea that Wizards are above No-Majs, and is set up as the kind of ‘big bad’ of the Fantastic Beasts series.
The creatures of Fantastic Beasts often steal the show, and there are a number to feast your eyes on from the first moments of the film. The love/hate relationship between Newt and the adorable kleptomaniac Niffler for example, creates the most effective comical moments throughout the film. Other creatures include a Demiguise, a primate-like creature that can blend into its surroundings, a Bowtruckle, a sweet and loyal twig like creature that has a knack for picking locks and an Occamy, a cross between a dragon and bird with a serpentine body, that can grow and shrink to fit into any available space. There are also a variety of other animals including Billywigs, a Thunderbird, a Swooping Evil and Obscurus’. Creatures like the Occamy and Demiguise created some wonderful visual effects. However, there are some less charming moments when we’re introduced to characters we’ve seen created using practical effects now rendered in CGI, such as Goblins. It removes a little of the, shall we say magic, from the overall design of the movie, although luckily these moments are rare.
You can already sense that J.K. Rowling has a master plan set up for us. Her detailed and immersive worlds are what makes her fans crave for more. It’s already been confirmed that there are another four films to be released in the series, which is set to end in the 1940′s of the Wizarding world, nineteen years after it begins, in a nod to the final scene in the Potter series which took place Nineteen Years Later. The film opens up the wonderful universe that Rowling has created, and does it’s predecessors in the Potter series proud.