Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell

Warning: Spoilers!

I went into this with reasonably low expectations (it felt like another needless Hollywood cash grab, like splitting the Hobbit into 3, and I wasn’t that enthralled by the trailers). My main point of reservation was basing a Harry Potter spin-off around a character only briefly referenced in the books, in a setting that surely wouldn’t match the lustre and wonder of Hogwarts. There seemed far more obvious candidates for a spin-off than Newt Scamander (looking back at James, Lupin and Sirius’ time at Hogwarts for instance). All things considered though, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

Eddie Redmayne’s winning performance as  Newt makes for a lead character you never hesitate to root for, with his clumsy and socially awkward, yet wise and caring personality in some ways reminding me of Matt Smith’s Doctor. The other leads are also brought to life well, Katherine Watson’s downtrodden auror Tina instantly wins your sympathy, while her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a talented legitimens who is both adorable, funny and immensely likeable. However, surprisingly, its the muggle (or No-Maj) Jacob Kowalski who along with Newt is the heart and soul of this film – he’s extremely funny and charming and his friendship with Newt is perfectly portrayed. Indeed, the humour is probably the best thing about the movie – its easily the wittiest thing JK Rowling has written. Dan Fogler’s comic timing in particular, is perfect, and the adorable Niffler steals the show at every opportunity. The magical creatures in general are a high point of the movie, all are memorable and Newt’s love for them shines through beautifully.

It doesn’t all work, the second Salemers subplot doesn’t really go anywhere (Samantha Morton’s character seems especially pointless – unlike the Dursleys, her hatred of magic is never satisfactorily explained nor is her performance particularly memorable). The casting in general, while good with the four leads, lacks the magic touch that made the Harry Potter ensemble so special. Colin Farrell as Graves really lacks the sense of menace that a Voldemort, Bellatrix or Umbridge brought to the role of lead villain. Johnny Depp may only be on screen for 1 minute as Grindelwald, but he doesn’t look or feel like a natural choice for the role, and most of the supporting American No-maj characters in particular seem very, very bland.

One thing that does excel is James Newton Howard’s score, which is easily up there with Nicholas Hooper and John Williams’ work for Harry Potter (far surpassing Alexandre Desplat’s). The visuals are equally amazing, the various magical creatures all looking believable and outlandish at the same time, while the magic is still as enrapturing as ever. The only thing that doesn’t really excite you is the New York backdrop – it’s just no comparison to Hogwarts and is so overused in movies and TV at the moment that as a setting it feels a bit of an unoriginal choice. Nevertheless, I don’t mind it being set in America, as giving us a view of a new part of the wizarding world was interesting and the 1920’s time period was memorable by itself.

I know some people who didn’t like this because its too different from Harry Potter, and yes, that is true, but it has great potential as a series regardless, and Rowling hasn’t lost her touch at writing an engaging story. In short, the humour, charismatic leads, adorable creatures, stunning magic and the sheer charm of the thing are more than enough reason to give this film a chance and judge the spin-off series on its own merits.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Overall a charming, funny and often magical return to the Harry Potter universe, even if the acting isn’t as stellar as the original series in places and the American setting doesn’t quite have the special feeling you got from Hogwarts. Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler are a classic odd couple double act, and I sincerely hope Kowalski, Queenie and Tina return in the sequel.

As promised in my look back at the Harry Potter films, here’s my view of what happens if I had to place the books/films in order, including Fantastic Beasts in the film list:

Books:

1. Prisoner of Azkaban
2. Half-Blood Prince
3. Goblet of Fire
4. Deathly Hallows
5. Chamber of Secrets
6. Philosopher’s Stone
7. Order of the Phoenix

Films

1. Deathly Hallows Part 2
2. Goblet of Fire
3. Order of the Phoenix
4. Prisoner of Azkaban
5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
6. Half-Blood Prince
7. Chamber of Secrets
8. Philosopher’s Stone
9. Deathly Hallows Part 1

As you can see, apart from the first two entries, the films adaptations shift my perspective a lot! Overall I must say I slightly prefer the films in all cases bar two (Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince – which I love so much no film version was going to match them), while Fantastic Beasts sits comfortably mid-table.

I’ll be on a temporary break from reviews for two weeks due to university coursework, but I’ll be back around the 17th with my review of Star Wars: Rogue One!

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