The Harry Potter franchise (mini reviews and ranking over here) was a scorching franchise that set the pace for other Young Adult adaptations to follow and still remains one of the most defining cinematic series in history. Five years on from the franchise finale, J.K. Rowling revives the Wizarding World with the first in a set of five prequel films detailing a 1920s America in which the very idea of magic is still a hidden, unfathomable entity. How does the return to the Wizarding World hold up against the first trip with Mr Potter and Co?
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits New York with a suitcase full with magical beasts. After a scuffle and he realises he is no longer in possession of the creatures, he must track them down across New York with former Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and ditzy Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). With more hostility growing after unexplained occurrences and the fear of witches and wizards intensifies, The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) does its best to keep the existence of magic a secret, led by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who colludes with the troubled Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) to uncover Obscures, a dark force manifesting as children and leading to the death of many. Despite its 1920s setting, beneath the surface of the film features a multitude of allegorical and parable themes that allows the film to resonate more clearly - but how well does the film handle these themes?
Terrific performances are given by the entire ensemble, with the cast all committed and dedicated to their roles in the Harry Potter series - no one more so than Eddie Redmayne; Newt Scamander is instantly likeable and charming, playing on the same vulnerability as Potter when we first met him, but making him unique enough to ensure that Fantastic Beats is not a complete rehash, and to ensure the character is indispensable and compelling enough to conjure the need to spend a future four films with him in the leading role. He largely succeeds in doing this, with help from Porpentina and Queen Goldstein as his magical counterparts and Kowalski as his muggle friend. They create a rather formidable team and promise that moving forward with these central characters will be a solid base to build the world upon. Ezra Miller is also a mighty addition to the cast, even if he doesn't spread his wings entirely until the third act and Farrell is a domineering presence in the picture too.
Visually, Fantastic Beasts is as spectacular as you imagine, with this second trip into the Wizarding World continuing the magical effects we have come to know and love. The beasts themselves are excellently well-realised and imagined, coming to life on the screen with their individual quirks, traits and colours, enhanced only further by the sensational use of 3D, which feels very tight in its usage. The New York backdrop is a refreshing change from the franchise, allowing the prequels to take a step away from the franchise as a whole and form its own identity, with such extravagance and richness towards the world it is creating. J.K. Rowling crafts the screenplay with detail in abundance, deepening the mythology of the world beyond that of what we already know, ensuring it is reminiscent of Potter without becoming a rehash. This, matched with David Yates' impressive direction ensures everything slots back into place rather efficiently, while standing the test of being unique and worthy enough of continuing the Wizarding journey. On the whole, its a very successful new venture.
However, one thing felt rather disconcerting - it too often felt like two very different films playing at the same time, and while each were solid, they failed to merge together cohesively. That's not to say they didn't fit, but I struggled to accept the opposing tones in each plot strand and it didn't quite sit right that they were playing out in the same film, without some middle ground or compromise. It also struggles with expectations - not that of its Harry Potter roots, but more of whats to come; the film ends on a rather definitive note and acts better as a standalone story than a franchise beginner, almost as if future sequels will be forced, rather than occurring naturally. Now, any extra time spent in Rowling's world is time well spent, but I do worry about the standard of the sequels if it is delivered for the sake of delivering a franchise. We will tell soon enough (chapter two is penciled in for the time in two years) but it was enough to pique my anxiety for this franchise moving forward. In other words, announcing a five-film franchise so early on into the game works more to the film's detriment than to its benefit.
Fantastic Beasts isn't as bad as you feared, and while its not quite as incredible as you want to believe it could be, it continues J.K.Rowling's Wizarding World with a series containing enough magic of its own to feel worthy of its place alongside Potter. Strong cast performances - particularly from Eddie Redmayne as the charming lead - and some solid work from Rowling as screenwriter and Yates as director work in the films favour, helping to craft the fun, whimsical and joyful adventure it takes you on, as well as hinting at some darker themes it doesn't yet have the conviction and confidence to champion at the film's forefront. It struggles in its overall ability to settle on a tone, plumping for two opposing narrative strands that struggle to co-exist in the same film, but ultimately do manage to end up in a place that combines the two for something a little more digestible. On the whole, it is undeniably fun and enjoyable, hinting at some interesting ideas and thematic work that could be incredibly effective by ironing out some of the niggling issues. A solid return for the
Summary: Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them delivers enough of its own magic to be a success, being reminiscent of the Harry Potter series without being a direct rip-off, with terrific performances and effects distracting from a narrative that doesn't always feel tonally consistent.
Highlight: Returning to J.K. Rowling's world is an absolute treat in itself.