Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
JK ROWLING turns her hand to scriptwriting with mixed results in Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them, an entertaining if flawed first entry into a new wizard-based adventure.
A prequel of sorts to her Harry Potter series, this takes place in the same world, albeit years before, and boasts a new set of heroes and villains, as well as a colourful array of beasts.
But while certainly visually arresting, the story itself feels muddled and uneven, with awkward shifts in tone and wafer-thin characterisation. Returning director David Yates does his own magic trick in keeping things moving so fast that you almost don’t notice the shortcomings but his spell only reaches so far.
Britain’s own Eddie Redmayne heads the cast as Newt Scamander, a magician and beast whisperer who, while on a mission to release a beast back into its rightful home in the American wild, unwittingly finds himself in New York (in 1926) and in the middle of a brewing war between humans (aka muggles or ‘no majs’) and wizards.
To place further strain on an already delicate situation, the suitcase he carries, and its various beastly inhabitants, has accidentally been opened by a luckless aspiring baker (Dan Fogler), forcing Newt to team up with two wizard sisters (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), as well as the muggle baker, to recapture them.
On their trail, meanwhile, is the mysterious Graves (Colin Farrell), the head of security for the American Ministry of Magic, who is also on the hunt for put-upon young social outcast (Ezra Miller) and his puritanical step-mother (Samantha Morton), as well as an invisible entity that is wreaking havoc around the city.
There’s a lot going on with Rowling’s latest work but the writer herself sometimes struggles to cope with the demands this imposes. The sheer number of characters, for instance, means that some inevitably get short-changed, with Farrell’s Graves certainly worth of more screen-time, and the likes of Morton and other supporting players too easily discarded.
As endearingly eccentric as Redmayne’s Scamander undoubtedly is too, we don’t get to learn that much about him, which also feels like a bit of a waste of the Oscar-winning actor’s efforts. Likewise, both Waterston and Sudol, whose sibling double act combines both resolute feminism with sexy charm.
If anything, it’s Fogler’s baker who gets the best deal, with his arc nicely realised and equally well acted. His interplay with Redmayne is a particular highlight and – at times – almost Laurel and Hardy-esque in terms of its slapstick quality.
Another big plus is the scope of the film’s imagination, which creates a believably wider world to the one witnessed in Potter, complete with the fantastic beasts of the title. And believe me, most of them are fantastic – even if the pursuit and capture of some does prove a timely distraction from the main event.
Yet here also lies another of the film’s problems. For while the set pieces mostly revolve around Redmayne and his often amusing attempts to recover his suitcase’s anarchic inhabitants, the simmering back-story struggles to get the space it deserves. And it’s much, much darker… tapping into contemporary fears about everything from political and social divide, discrimination, terrorism and even child abuse.
Rowling deserves credit for enabling Fantastic Beasts to resonate beyond its fantasy elements (there’s even a Presidential candidate in the bullying mould, whose biggest supporter is played by Jon Voight), but this invariably sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the escapism. Rowling seems to want to have her cake and eat it.
Given the sheer volume of Potter enthusiasts, though, she’ll undoubtedly be indulged, especially given the way the film eventually dangles a number of possibilities (including a new big bad) for future instalments that offer plenty of potential.
And for all of its problems, there’s no denying that when it fires on all cylinders, Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is hugely entertaining. It’s a bigger, bolder creation than the more personal Potter, which still manages to nod to those films with some tantalising links.
Fans will lap it up, while newcomers may also find themselves spellbound. Just don’t go expecting perfection.
Running time: 132mins
UK Release Date: November 18, 2016