This spin-off of the Harry Potter series, set in New York in the 1920s, takes some aspects of JK Rowling’s ‘wizarding world’ and places them in a new context, with a focus on adult characters. It is the first in what will be a five-film franchise and is directed by David Yates, who directed the final four entries in the Harry Potter series, and who has been confirmed as the director for all four sequels to this opening chapter. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is based on the book of the same name, which Rowling wrote as a side note to her Potter series, and sees the author make her debut as a screenwriter.
It tells the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who, on a trip to New York, accidentally releases a number of magical creatures into the neighbourhood. This is particularly unfortunate because MACUSA (Magic Congress of the United States of America) is struggling to keep the existence of magic secret from the “No-Majs” (those unpossessed of magical ability, or ”muggles”, to us Brits), with whom the wizarding world has had a strained relationship in the past. This setup forms the basis of most of the film’s narrative, although the actual focus of the plot is elsewhere, and will lead into the sequels.
Initially the film’s lack of focus is distracting. Newt’s efforts to subdue his creatures are fitfully entertaining, but because the film keeps cutting away to other plot strands and introducing new characters, the first half feels rambling and struggles to hold the interest. As the plot moves on a sense of momentum begins to emerge, which is a relief, and the final act is surer of foot as a result – there’s even genuine emotion in the final movement, which I had not expected. There are bits of the narrative which feel a little rushed because the film is attempting to fit so much in, but by the end we get a pretty good sense of how the US’ relationship with magic differs from that of the UK.
There’s a subplot involving a group of magic-hating extremists led by Samantha Morton’s unnerving Mary Lou Barebone, although the significance of this group is only fleetingly addressed, to the point that one major plot point in particular feels oddly incidental. But what the film sometimes lacks in structure and plotting, it makes up for in charm and energy. Redmayne gives an endearing performance as Newt, his collection of nervy ticks moving quickly from weird to charming. The supporting cast makes the weaker scenes play better than they might have done, in particular Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, the No-Maj caught up in Newt’s actions, who brings welcome warmth to his scenes.
Rowling and Yates build and inhabit the world of 1920s New York convincingly, and crucially make this feel like the same world as, albeit slightly removed from, the one we’ve read about and watched for many years. But the film lacks real heart to match its world building. Newt is a charming but mostly one-note protagonist, who hopefully will be fleshed out in the next film, and the same applies to Tina, a MACUSA employee who first arrests and then befriends Newt. The villainous element of the plot is also thin, and an unintentionally amusing reveal at the end fails to drum up the interest it’s hoping for.
There’s strong effects work on the numerous critters in the film, in particular a kleptomaniac marsupial ‘Niffler’ with a penchant for nicking shiny goods, and even though most of the action sequences feel incidental as regards the plot, they provide enough energy to be fun. Technically the film is as adept as we’d expect from the later Potter films, with a sweeping (if slightly overwrought) soundtrack and a strong sense of place.
Fantastic Beasts is a solid if unspectacular introduction to a new franchise. The next entry would benefit from a tighter plot, better paci ng and more focus on character. But whether for die-hard fans of the series, who will be going to see this whatever, or those with a more casual interest, it’s worth a viewing.