I was just the right age for HARRY POTTER. The books were coming out in the years when I was really into my reading and I’ve grown up simultaneously with the cast of the films. Even with the involvement of JK Rowling and director David Yates, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM could have gone either way, but I’m extremely happy to report that it’s a colourful and thrilling ride.
Magizoologist Newt Skamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York carrying a case full of magical creatures and wouldn’t you know it? Some of them get loose. Newt finds himself on the run from the authorities with an unlikely group of allies as he chases his escaped beasts across the city and dark magical forces begin to gather…
As attached as so many of us were to Harry, Ron, Hermione et al, JK Rowling has come up with a compelling new group of characters to follow. Eddie Redmayne is a perfect fit for Newt Skamander; wide-eyed and keen but concealing a deeply buried melancholy. Dan Fogler is a revelation as Kowalski, not just thankless comic relief and audience surrogate but instead serving as the film’s grounding point and beating heart. He has an adorable chemistry with flirty psychic Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the endearingly awkward and duty-bound Tina (Katherine Waterston) rounds out the quartet.
Rowling has gone town on the real-world subtext behind the spell-casting, but it never feels forced or out of place. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA)’s obsession with keeping the muggle/no-maj world segregated from the wizarding one lends the film some staggeringly dark socio-political implications, especially considering the rise of certain real-world powers a decade after this film is set. It will be interesting to see how heavily allegorical Rowling chooses to make this new story as we march on towards real human conflicts.
Until the final reel, the film wisely doesn’t try to be an action movie, giving viewers time to process the magic and the imagination of a range of creatures evading capture. The production design team are amongst the most talented in the industry, with eye-catching and imposing physical sets and convincing and dynamic realisation of creatures and concepts in CGI. The central set piece of the film is not a special effect destroying a city (though that does unfortunately make an appearance) but is a scene following Newt and Kowalski wandering through the magizoologist’s vast nature preserve watching its inhabitants living harmoniously in their respective habitats. I was pleasantly surprised that this key sequence which places you in the middle of the environment as the camera steadily explores searching for the colourful residents worked particularly well in 3-D.
The key message here is always that animals aren’t dangerous; only people. Just like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, Beasts preaches respect for, and understanding of, the power of nature and warns of the arrogance of mankind thinking it can control and subjugate the natural world. At a key point Newt’s anguished wails of “They’re not dangerous! Leave them alone!” fall on deaf ears as the agents of the Magical Congress prepare to act with extreme prejudice to preserve the peace.
It’s hard to top some of the moments from Harry Potter, but the new setting for Fantastic Beasts provides ample opportunities. Newt’s visit to the gleaming multi-leveled gantries of MACUSA, detouring to a goblin-run speakeasy (complete with toe-tapping jazz lounge number) and the adorable kleptomaniac Niffler running amock in a bank vault rank alongside some of the strongest images from Potter, wondrous Hogwarts reveal and chilling Dementor introduction included. By the way, I really want my own Niffler (I mean, just look at it!) and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who does.
By taking us to strange new places and populating this expansion of the wizards game world with weird and wonderful sights, Yates and Rowling have ensured a new lease of life in this beloved franchise. Personally I can’t wait for the next one, as long as they get the casting right for a young Dumbledore. SSP