It’s been a big year for the Harry Potter franchise (or JK Rowling’s Wizarding World, as it’s been rebranded). After the relative quiet since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 in cinemas, JK Rowling has delivered, in the span of six months, an original sequel play (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, now showing in the West End) and a new prequel spin-off franchise. And Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has already been announced as a five-film series, even before the first instalment’s official release. Even the most ardent fans of the series are bound to start feeling like they’re being too eagerly relieved of their Sickles, Galleons and Knuts. And that is, of course, true. But to give all credit where its due, Fantastic Beasts is (perhaps against all odds, for a prequel spin-off) a great film - and likely the best thing Rowling has written since Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
This new film takes us about 70 years before the Harry Potter story, to 1926 New York. Newt Scamander is a magizoologist,- ie a wizard who studies magical creatures, their care, and their preservation. He’s drafting up a book (called Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them) which in turn will become one of Harry Potter’s textbooks at Hogwarts. He also has his own (creature-related) reasons for being in the US. However, soon after his arrival, he bumps into Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a Ministry of Magic employee, and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a Muggle (or No-Maj as they’re apparently called in the States). And things get messy.
Perhaps some of the most satisfying things about Fantastic Beasts is that it achieves what often was lacking in the Harry Potter films. The story was solely written for the screen, so gone are the awkward plot arcs of the films (which let’s face it, never quite did justice to the complexity of the books, because a feature film was always just too short). Gone too is the uneven acting. Eddie Redmayne crafts a creates a distinct, quirky persona for Newt that is incredibly endearing. Fogler particularly shines as Jacob - providing comic relief (his smiles! His smiles!) but also a level of depth typically absent in a secondary character. You could go on. There’s Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller and Alison Sudol and Carmen Ejogo … and no one does anything but a stellar job.
Despite its dark stakes, the film has a light, whimsical tone reminiscent of the first Potter instalments.The creatures are inventive, mostly adorable and genuinely funny - both to children and grown-ups alike. And while taking JK Rowling’s universe in its stride (there is no explanation of the wizarding world, though we don’t really need one) the film still creates moments of wonder at every turn. Clearly no expense has been spared on the effects. You can tell, because it all looks stunning, from everyday scenes in a wizarding home, to giant creatures and powers battling each other.
Topping all of this, Fantastic Beasts aspires to be more than a fun foray into the Potter universe. Political subtext underlies the whole story. Much like the Potter series, Rowling deals in big themes: intolerance, discrimination, acceptance, fanaticism… There’s also a little bit of romance, and plenty of unanswered questions for the sequels. So much so that a next film feels very natural, rather than a forced addition.
The only disappointment of Fantastic Beasts is that its cast isn’t particularly diverse. And its two lead female characters, Tina and Queenie, are also a tad stereotyped, and that’s a real pity too. Let’s hope it improves over the next four instalments.
JK Rowling’s return to the big screen is simply magical