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What's the big deal?
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a fantasy adventure film released in 2016 and is a spin-off / prequel of the Harry Potter franchise created by JK Rowling. Directed by Potter-regular David Yates and written by Rowling herself, the film follows an English 'magizoologist' who arrives in New York during a troubled time when the secret world of wizards is on the verge of being exposed. The film stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell and Jon Voight. The film is set some seventy years before Harry's story begins and is inspired by a guide book written by Rowling (as Newt Scamander) detailing various magical creatures across the world. Released to a generally positive response from critics, the film became one of the biggest films of the year with global takings of $814 million. It also became the first Wizarding World film to win an Academy Award, picking up Best Costume Design. It was soon followed by a sequel - The Crimes Of Grindelwald - in 2018 and a third film - The Secrets Of Dumbledore - in 2022.
What's it about?
In 1926, News Scamander - a wizard and self-proclaimed 'magizoologist' - arrives in New York with a suitcase full of rare and bizarre creatures. He arrives at a troubling time for the city, apparently plagued by random attacks by people or forces unknown and with anti-witch fever being whipped up by prominent street preacher Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society. After a Niffler escapes from Newt's suitcase and causes havoc in a bank, Newt bumps into Jacob Kowalski - a Muggle (non-magical) factory worker and aspiring baker - while attempting to recapture it. Having done so, Newt leaves with Jacob's identical suitcase by accident and Jacob leaves with Newt's, fleeing the scene in abject panic.
Unfortunately, Newt's misfortune was witnessed by former auror at the Magical Congress Of The United States (MACUSA) Tina Goldstein who apprehends Newt and escorts him back to MACUSA headquarters. While they are being questioned by auror Percival Graves and MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery, Jacob unwittingly opens Newt's suitcase and unleashes a horde of creatures onto the city. But there are even darker forces at work and it soon falls to Newt, Tina, Jacob and Tina's mind-reading sister Queenie to recapture them all and preserve the secret world of wizards from exposure.
What's to like?
Fantastic Beasts is a surprising film on some levels. The first Harry Potter film without the boy himself anywhere in sight, the film gives a few nods and musical cues as to its lineage but not much else. One thing the film have always done well is portraying the wizarding world on screen and this film is no exception. New York in the 1920s is far removed from Hogwarts but the attention to detail is just as exquisite with sets, costumes and vehicles all feeling authentic. Combined with the more fantastical elements introduced by the story, the film becomes a rich and rewarding experience - one familiar enough for Potter fans to recognise but different enough to separate it from the earlier films. Special credit must be given to the design of the numerous creatures themselves, all rendered in CG but in a way that makes them feel both realistic and in some cases, even plausible.
The story may be a little lacking in places but this is doubtless due to Rowling preparing another multiple-movie narrative for us to enjoy. However, what the film may lack in narrative, it more than makes up for with characters and action. Scamander himself is certainly an interesting lead, played by Redmayne as an odd cross between David Attenborough and a socially awkward Doctor Who. But frankly, I was more interested in the supporting cast - Sudol's Queenie isn't given enough screen time but there are plenty of hints that there is a lot going on beneath the surface while Fogler, Morton and Farrell provide excellent support from the sidelines. But it's not easy to make your character stand out amid so much CG and the sad fact is that most viewers will probably remember the Niffler more than any of the human cast.
- According to Rowling, Newt Scamander's guide book Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was first published in 1927 (the year after this film is set) and was not just a huge best-seller but became an approved textbook at Hogwarts. By the time Harry begins attending the school in The Philosopher's Stone, the book is in its 52nd edition.
- Note the grey and yellow scarf that Newt has in his suitcase and wears in the final scene. This suggests that during his time at Hogwarts, Newt was a member of Hufflepuff - which turns out to be the same as me, at least if the Sorting Hat test available at https://www.wizardingworld.com/news/discover-your-hogwarts-house-on-wizarding-world is anything to go by.
- In America, muggles (non-magical people) are referred to as No-Maj instead. This may be because in the US at the time, muggle was a slang term for a marijuana cigarette.
- Redmayne wore a wig for the role but had to cut the hair by himself in the dark. Hair designer for the film Fae Hammond argued that Newt would have to groom himself in less-than-ideal places on his various travels so she gave Redmayne a pair of rusty kitchen scissors and told him to cut his hair in a darkened closet, which he then did.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite work as well as you may hope. For starters, there is far too much CG on screen - from the digitally recreated New York skyline to the numerous beasts and the various magical powers demonstrated, the film has a deeply artificial feel to it like one of the Star Wars prequels such as The Phantom Menace. Compared to the earlier Potter films, it lacks a little warmth and charm although this could simply be because we got used to Hogwarts over eight movies and here, we're thrown in at the deep end. Narratively, the story isn't the strongest - I can't even remember why Newt was in New York in the first place - and it comes across as simply setting up storylines for later films, which is disappointing. Rowling's hands are all over the film, however, and the obvious allusion to racial segregation in the US at the time is a little ham-fisted. And seasoned Potter fans will quickly clue in to the fact that the film's villain is fairly obvious - misdirection is something of a signature of hers and nearly every book in the series features a character designed to suit as a red herring.
There were other things that disappointed too like the fact that the film isn't as much fun as the other Potter movies. There are attempts at humour, of course, but children will be more entertained by the chaotic animals running about than the subplot about a mysterious magical killer on the loose. In fact, for what is essentially a kid's film despite the 12 certificate, the film is quite dark in tone at times and would probably frighten younger viewers unused to Rowling's imagination. But the biggest hurdle, and one I don't feel it came close to clearing, is the fact that the film's very existence smacks of greedy studio executives trying to squeeze as much money as they can from the Potter franchise. Much like Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, the film is adequate but not a patch on what came before it despite the shared DNA. For whatever reason, the magic just isn't as strong this time around.
Should I watch it?
For Potter fans desperate for a fresh hit, Fantastic Beasts will suffice until the series finds its feet. It's an ambitious and stacked film, one just about on a par with some of the weaker Harry Potter films, and I will say that this new direction has promise. But ultimately, this feels more of a trial run - testing an audience's appetite for more CG destruction, magic and unusual animals after such a relatively long absence. Perhaps I'm being too cynical but the film did little to change my mind about this being a shameless cash-grab, albeit a very successful one.
Great For: money-hungry studio executives, Harry Potter fans who have worn out their DVDs, JK Rowling's bank account
Not So Great For: completely reviving the magic, anyone who has never read the books, the human cast overshadowed by endless CG
What else should I watch?
Judging by the reception that has greeted The Crimes Of Grindelwald and The Secrets Of Dumbledore, it would seem as though Fantastic Beasts is still awaiting that knock-out film to give it some credence, if you'll excuse the pun. The first sequel brings an increasingly kooky Johnny Depp on board as Grindelwald as well as Jude Law as a young Dumbledore but the film once again has an overly complicated plot that tries to set up multiple, as-yet unfinished storylines. The Secrets Of Dumbledore, which was delayed due to the global pandemic, sees Depp replaced by the ever-reliable Mads Mikkelsen and once again sees Grindelwald and Dumbledore at odds with each other. Although the film is the lowest earning film in the series so far, most critics agreed that it was an improvement and Mikkelsen was generally better than Depp in the role. Time will tell what the future holds for Fantastic Beasts but I dare say that we're not done yet.
Given the cultural phenomenon that was Harry Potter, it was unlikely that The Deathly Hallows: Part Two would be the last we ever saw of the Wizarding World. Both the books and the films have legions of fans across the world and both are well worth examining if you have the time. Movie-wise, my favourite would probably be the third film - The Prisoner Of Azkaban - but I will say that Deathly Hallows: Part One is an excellent film in its own right, finally shifting the film's focus from Hogwarts into our modern, muggle world and ultimately giving us the sort of grand action we'd been waiting patiently for. And of course, if you prefer your fantasy films with less kids running about in the woods then there's always Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy - which is also about to get its own money-hungry spin-off in the form of TV series The Rings Of Power.
Sometimes, this industry really depresses me.
Mary Lou Barebone
Henry Shaw Sr.
Release Date (UK)
18th November, 2016
Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Best Costume Design
Academy Award Nominations
Best Production Design
© 2022 Benjamin Cox