Shhh, quiet, can you hear that? That’s the sound of the Harry Potter cinematic army roaring back in to the theatres en mass for the first time in five years! It’s been a long wait, and though this new adventure in the wizarding world does not in any way involve a certain young boy with a scar on his forehead, I went in with no doubts that I would be satisfied with merely returning to the world that encompassed my childhood and adolescence, both on the page and on the big screen.
Set some 60 years before Harry Potter was even born, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them tells the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former Hufflepuff and current magizooologist who arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures that, in true caper fashion, manage to escape almost immediately after docking. Newt quickly makes the acquaintance of two American witches Tina and Queenie Goldstein (played by Katherine Watson and Alison Sudol), and an instantly likeable No-Maj (American for muggle) called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who gets unsuspectingly swept up in the magical adventure. The film’s narrative follows two main plots, the lighthearted search to retrieve Newt’s creatures, which eventually comes to connect to a much darker, more sinister plot involving Samantha Morton as Mary Lou Barebone, the leader of an anti-magic extremist group that bares unsettling resemblance to a certain political movement was that beginning to come to life across the pond in areas of Europe.
If we’re talking in Harry Potter terms, one could describe Fantastic Beasts as The Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber Of Secrets with a dash of Order Of The Phoenix and Deathly Hallows thrown in. Through the introduction to many of Newt’s creatures the audience are provided with that sense of magical wonder that a first look at Hogwarts or Diagon Alley evoked, yet in the same picture we are shown the dark and dangerous side of the universe that was not truly revealed until much later in the original franchise. For an introductory instalment, the film is ambitious in its scope, with a fairly complex story and plenty of little easter eggs and references to events and characters which help to connect it to its parent franchise. At over two hours in length, I can honestly say that the picture does not overstay its welcome, in fact rather providing me with the increasingly rare occasion in modern cinema where I wanted more. My immediate eagerness to revisit this new section of the wizarding world bodes well for the future of the franchise, as there is talk that J.K. Rowling has five instalments worth of story left to tell! Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts provides a high quality and extremely welcome return to everything magical, and though, of course, the weight of nostalgia prevents me from placing it alongside the best films of the original Harry Potter series, I will say that without a doubt it is a more impressive and engrossing experience than perhaps the first two were upon release.
As Newt Scamander, Eddie Redmayne is the adorable, awkward, caring, clever Hufflepuff that we all knew he would be. Redmayne has a delicacy in his acting that makes him incredibly endearing and vulnerable whilst at the same time able to effortlessly command the screen. Having seen the film, I honestly can’t imagine anybody else in the role. As Tina, a former Auror with the Magical Congress Of The United States Of America, Katherine Watson provides the kind of powerful female presence that Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger never could quite manage, although I will give her the benefit of age and experience. Acting somewhat as the audience surrogate in the midst of all the magical mayhem is Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, an instantly likeable character who strikes up a fine chemistry with Redmayne and a charming forbidden romance with Tina’s ditzy sister Queenie. Samantha Morton as Mary Lou Barebone will draw inevitable comparisons with Imelda Staunton’s Delores Umbridge, but Morton lends a much quieter, unsettling menace to her character, less pantomime and more psychological horror which makes her scenes very unnerving. As was tradition with the Harry Potter films, there are countless small roles taken up by big names, and though there is little point in critiquing every player, the likes of Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight and Johnny Depp all play their part in making the extended universe a rich one.
Overall, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them may not have been a motion picture that I was begging for, but I enjoyed it so much that it has definitely left me begging for a swift sequel. In some ways, despite the comic relief of some cute creatures, it feels like more of an ‘adult’ adventure right off the bat than the beginning of the original franchise. Whether that is because the protagonists are all already adults or because J.K. Rowling is specifically targeting the now adult viewers who grew up with her original stories, I do not know, but it certainly hit the sweet spot for this 26 year old who began her wizarding world journey at the tender age of 7 back in 1997. Bring on the next instalment!