Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
"There is meat and crunch and intelligent plotline."

I am not a natural fan of Harry Potter. I dislike the boarding school pastiche, teenage angst and dubious Latin spelling. I have about as much time for quidditch as I do for Eton Fives. As for twee Hagrid-ridden sub-plots involving species about as zoologically plausible as the inhabitants of a medieval bestiary, puh-lease!

For which reason, I am also not a natural reviewer for the Potter prequel*, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. Expecto not so much patronus, as one star. But there you would be wrong. For over time, the literary Potter grew, transforming, as it did so, from half-cocked tale of kids with wands to something else - a veritable world of sorcery with its own dynamic and its own difficult issues of exclusion and supremacy. All that stuff about mudbloods and how easy it was to fall into believing that wizards are naturally superior to muggles and entitled to lord it over their merely human inferiors. Potter as metaphor for racism, apartheid, homophobia? That works for me. And as Potter grew in stature, my own interest in the story grew too. So while this film notionally goes before the books, on many levels, it goes way beyond.

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It begins, by way of setting the tone, with an introduction to Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) who, despite having little to do in this film, seems destined to return in the already planned sequels occupying much the same evil quasi-fascist niche taken up later on by Voldemort. Cut to a young Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a sort of wizarding Charles Darwin, arriving in New York with a suitcase full of exotic, magical animals. Unfortunately for Newt, the US magical fraternity, under the leadership of Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) are not fans of such creatures, fearing their presence will likely increase muggle awareness of wizards. And rule one of US wizardry? The muggles or, as they are known in the US, “the no-maj's”, must never, EVER find out!

Of course, Newt's case bears a remarkable resemblance to a case carried by one Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), leading to a predictable oops-i-took-your-bag plotline, followed equally predictably by oops-the-critters-have-escaped. Making matters indescribably nastier, these two plotlines, played mostly for laughs, coincide with the presence in the city of an “obscurus”, a being whose nature is as dark and destructive as its name implies. Accused of smuggling in the latter, Newt is first arrested, then aided and abetted in his escape by disgraced auror/wizarding enforcer, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).

Newt, Jacob, Porpentina, and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) are pursued by Chief Auror, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). The narrative turns dark, as humans are killed - and Newt and Graves face off against the obscurus and one another.

As plot goes, it is complicated. Blink and you will probably miss something important, as the ground is very clearly being laid for future episodes - at latest count, the producers have pencilled this in as number one in a five-part movie series. The first blushes of tentative romance make their appearance, along with possible bad influence in Newt's past, but all such attempts are quickly thwarted.

Still, there is substance here of a kind mostly lacking in mainstream Potter. Newt may be reluctant hero, but he is an altogether more credible, assertive hero. Porpentina, Jacob and Queenie are equally that much more grown up. Other inhabitants of the wizarding world – not just the beasts, but elves and goblins too are foregrounded in a way more reminiscent of Lord of the Rings than traditional Potter.

There is meat and crunch and intelligent plotline. Music too, as for the first time, watching a film from the Potter universe, I found myself interested in listening to the soundtrack, which included elements of blues and ragtime - even, in a new departure, going out and listening to it independently of the film itself.

Fantastic Beasts is without doubt a gear change in the right direction for the Potter franchise. Another film or two and we might even be talking about the Scamander franchise, because these are not just Hogwarts cast-offs, but strong, interesting characters pursuing new and interesting agendas of their own.

Fantastic Beasts does not fall into the same tweeness traps as its predecessor. Unlike the naïve fumblings of Ron and Harry and Ginny and Hermione, the relationships established here have room to grow - it really would be interesting to discover whether Newt and Portpentina, in the final reel, do get together. The beasts, contrary to my initial scepticism, work well, providing strong support to a world of magic that is altogether more believable, more solid than what went before.

To plan five movies ahead may seem like the most awful hostage to fate, but on the evidence of tonight's viewing, Warner Bros may just be on the right track. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

* Yes, know that J K Rowling has stated that Fantastic Beasts “is neither a prequel nor a sequel to the Harry Potter series, but an extension of the wizarding world”.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2016
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Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them packshot
The year is 1926 and Newt Scamander has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures when things go awry in New York.
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Director: David Yates

Writer: JK Rowling

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Gwen Chan, Colin Farrell, Zoë Kravitz, Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight

Year: 2016

Runtime: 133 minutes

Country: UK, US


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