Before I dive into the main review proper…let me give you a brief overview of my history with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I grew up with Harry, Hermione, and Ron…literally. I started reading the books when they first came out in 1997 and fell in love with them, and even to this day it’s hard for me not to re-read the whole series when there’s so many other new stories I could be reading. I’ve done midnight releases for these books, seen all of the movies and have collected just about every Harry Potter story I can get my hands on. Yes, I’m a bit of a Potterhead…so you can imagine how sad it was when the book series ended, and then a few short years later, the cinematic universe came to a close with the 8th Harry Potter movie for me.
That being said, you can imagine my delight when J.K. Rowling announced that she was going to be writing this movie, the first of apparently now many (the last announcement was for five movies). Let’s dive in, shall we?
Yesterday, a wizard entered New York with a case. A case full of magical creatures. And unfortunately, some have escaped.
The story begins in New York, 1926 (with a slight bit of exposition and foreshadowing prior to that) where we see a steam ship carrying Newt Scamander, our hero. He is a zoologist whom is coming off a year in the field dedicated to writing a book on the magical creatures that exist out in the wilds. He also happens to be carrying a case that contains a great deal of said magical creatures within–a case which has some very faulty latches, and unfortunately lands him in a pretty big mess.
The America we see in 1926 is beautifully realized. The amount of detail in the Harry Potter films has always been staggering, and here in Fantastic Beasts, there is clearly no exception. The digital and practical sets reek of great care being taken to ensure an authentic “1926” look and feel. It’s also extremely interesting to see the American Wizarding World be realized for the first time, and what the ramifications of that means to the Wizarding World as a whole. There’s little bits and bobs visually that make you feel like this is connected to the other Harry Potter films (the general aesthetic was designed by MinaLima who did all of the graphic design for the 8 Potter films as well) but make no mistake–this is a whole new world, and with a whole new world comes with a different set of rules.
For one, there are no “Muggles” in America, they’re called “No-Maj”. The entire wizarding community as a whole also seems very tense, as if all out war could start at any time between “No-Maj” and Witches and Wizards. This world is very grim and bleak…while Harry Potter felt dark at times, this one cranks it up a notch by living in deep shades of grey and black throughout.
Mr. Scamander, do you know anything about the wizarding community in America? We don’t like things loose.
Newt, our hero who is supposed to be in New York for a brief stop over, is crucial to not only this movie, but furthering the franchise for another 4 movies. We have to like him pretty quickly and if we don’t, it’s going to be very hard to connect to him and want to invest into his story.
That being said, the first hour or so watching this film is pretty rough going. Not only are we getting a lot of exposition, but we’re getting to experience Eddie Redmayne being pretty awkward at times. It’s part of the character though–he’s obviously more at home with his creatures than he is with humans. I’m happy to say by the end of the film he becomes a much more likable character–mainly because he finds some humans he actually likes (mainly Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski and Katherine Waterson as Porpentina Goldstein). There are moments though when it’s mildly painful to watch Redmayne as he mumbles and doesn’t look people in the eyes. He’s a character that grows on you, his aloofness and awkwardness leading way to charm and confidence.
Fogler’s Kowalski is both parts comedy relief and an Audience Surrogate. That is to say, a lot of the wizarding world’s trivia and facts get sprung upon the No-maj so that common movie goers who probably didn’t see those crazy Harry Potter films will be able to keep up. Still, his performance was pretty solid and made Jacob a pretty likable guy.
Likewise, Porpentina (or just Tina) Goldstein is brought to life by a pretty great Katherine Waterson. She brings a real sense of emotion to Tina, and it was really nice to see a female lead who contributes to the plot in a meaningful way…not just playing second fiddle to Newt. (Kudos to Rowling for writing another great female lead).
The only character that really bugged me for a bit was Queenie, played by Alison Sudol. She’s Tina’s sister in the film, and brings in Newt and Jacob to their home when things get hairy. She has a quirky, syrupy sweet quality to her that’s very reminiscent of Luna Lovegood from the Potter films, and while that may have been intentional, it was a bit hard to watch at times. She is a character that again grows on you…and I’m interested to see where they take her in the future.
My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.
The best part of the film, is of course, whenever the magical CGI creatures are on screen. They really bring out the best in Newt and Redmayne’s performance, and add a dose of action and humor at pretty critical moments during the film. The dark parts in this film seem strangely thrown in…almost a complete change of pace that really let the air out of the movie but the beasts themselves reign you back in and just make you happy, dare I say fantastic, when they are there.
The movie as a whole was written quite well. The screenplay was actually written by J.K. Rowling, her very first and so the twists and turns feel like a Harry Potter novel and follow her structure very well. The dialogue was written very well as well. For being her first screenplay, it’s a pretty decent job and I look forward to more screenplays from her in the future.
I refuse to bow down any longer.
That being said, the movie did have some cons that irked me a bit. We had a few random scene changes that jumped us around a lot to almost as if say “Hey, uh…something important and evil is about to happen, let’s go over there!” This is also a film that is clearly trying to be more for adults but still leaves its feet firmly in adolescence with the way the humor is presented. I also feel like Ezra Miller was really underused whose only mode was “tortured soul” and could have been given a bit more to work with. Colin Farrell also seemed to be one-noting it by being brooding and villainous-looking throughout the whole film. Not necessarily his fault, again–he only can work with what he has available to him.
This film also suffers for having to be the very first in a long line of movies…throwing out various plot threads that will surely be resolved later. I am extremely curious to see where this path leads though…especially considering it looks like we’re head back to Europe for film 2.
All in all, I dug the film, even after a second showing. It wasn’t my favorite movie ever, but I enjoyed it and it has enough of that old Harry Potter spark, chock full of Easter eggs and references, to make me interested in it. If nothing else, I’m in it for the long game now with Newt, his friends…and all of his fantastic beasts.