“I ain’t got the brains to make this up.”
J.K. Newt we’d be excited for this one.
With that out of the way, I must start this review with a disclaimer. I am no Potterite. I’ve never read the books and I only saw a couple of the films to be social. Never was I taken by Rowling’s world, or its the characters. Even when I trudged round the Warner Bros’ tour earlier this year, I left without wand, scarf, cape, chocolate frog or newfound enthusiasm. Therefore, I had little anticipation for this ninth installment. Maybe that put me in a good position, this muggle is totally unsentimental, or maybe Pottopia just isn’t for me.
And I’m sad to say, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t do quite enough to sway my opinion. Set in a dusty ’20s New York, J.K. Rowling’s screenwriting debut pits Brit Newt Scamander on a chaos course in a magically-repressed time, where America’s wizards hide away from the prying eyes of the No-Majs. A moral outsider in a brave new world? We’re right back in Rowling’s wheelhouse.
Taking up the role of awkward, immensely talented loner, Eddie Redmayne seems tailor-made for the Potterverse. From the first moment we see him hunched on a bench, talking to his briefcase, he seems born for this world. Reddy Eddie is well-spoken, highly-educated and possesses a uniquely awkward charm. Keeping his head bowed and his voice small, Redmayne is in the zone, essentially channeling a toned-down version of his previous personas. He is, in one moment, naturally charming, dancing in front of an overgrown rhino, and in another, grating, grinning with his much-practiced half-smile.
Redmayne’s wizard becomes embroiled in something much bigger than himself when some of his amazing animals are let loose by a muggle. He gets accosted by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, but it is not he, however, who is causing trouble above-ground. Forces beyond anyone’s control are afoot.
In this way, Fantastic Beasts is played rather straight. Newt’s partnership with muggle Jacob is pure buddy comedy fodder. One guy in the know and a bumbling rookie teamed together to save the day. There are moments when it is this, as Jacob tries and blunders all over the screen, but it’s the addition of the two female companions which give Fantastic Beasts such heart. Whilst Jacob doesn’t offer as many laughs as one would hope, it is Tina, played by the excellent Katherine Waterston, who comes to be the most engaging on screen. She first hauls in Newt to the senior staff, but comes to work with him, supporting and saving. Her sister Queenie, also gets involved in the heists and hoodwinks that occur, and creates a very tender relationship that warms the core of the picture. It rarely feels like a group that may ever rival the adoration afforded to Hermoine and her boys, but they’ll do.
The story’s formulaic development and reasonable band of misfits are raised by the collection of amazing creatures after which this film is named. Rowling invites us into MagicZootropolis (coming to a briefcase and Cineplex near you), and introduces to us a smorgasbord of curious creations. From the tiny to the towering, the impossible to the implausible, Rowling has an animal for each mood, and climate. The cheeky, Niffler has all the attributes to make it a bonafide star, whilst the twiggy Bowtruckle and beaky Occany work perfectly on screen. Even Newt’s giant bald eagle is a great spectacle, though, like the potentially show-stealing Demiguise, is drastically underused. I look forward to seeing more of the Alsatian-sized dung beetles in future.
These Beasts are unarguably Fantastic, but the magic they are surrounded by has lost some of its shimmer. Even without having seen all 8 previous incarnations, I couldn’t help having the feeling that we’d seen it almost all before. If not in this world, then others. The rich, vibrancy of Hogwarts itself is sorely missing and the visual spectacles of the open city has been bettered on scale and invention by the recent Doctor Strange.
But, that said, Rowling’s world casts an unbreakable spell. It is pure magic. The score is just close enough to those famous notes of Hogwarts to feel cosy, but new enough to excite even the most snub-nosed critic. The spells, the wonder and the immense possibility is a real joy to submit yourself to. Though this won’t define the franchise, and hasn’t raised the bar on wizarding entertainment, it is a perfect potion to introduce mere muggles and welcome back wizard-sympathisers. Heck, this isn’t the best film you’ll see this fortnight, but it’ll make you want to see four more.
Images courtesy of Collider and ScreenRant respectively.