The familiar and weathered Warner Bros. logo drifts towards the screen, followed by those iconic stormy clouds, and suddenly we are whisked back to a familiar place where wizards and goblins live in the spaces between. Where we once found ourselves soaring above the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, we are now in a different place, where the stories are unknown and the characters are new. It also happens to be several decades before Harry, Hermoine and Ronald walked through platform 9 3⁄4, a period that feels even more suited to the creations of author JK Rowling.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them welcomes fans back to the world of Harry Potter and establishes its time and place through an effective montage title sequence. The era is the 1920s; the location is New York City. We arrive to the story at a moment when the magic world is at risk of being exposed and its secrecy is under threat by the escalating social movement. British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived in New York with a suitcase full of creatures. When some of these fantastic beasts escape, he finds himself caught up in a madcap escapade, along with a muggle (the American term being “No-Maj” – as in No Magic), played by Dan Fogler, and two sisters, played by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol. Their adventure takes them all across the city with the Magical Congress of The United States of America (MACUSA) hot on their trail and a menagerie of creatures on the loose.
There is no question that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a striking film, its 1920’s period setting brought to life with much attention to detail. The atmosphere recaptures the better qualities of the original Harry Potter series and the characters feel as though they’ve been lifted directly from those previous pages. Shifting the story from England to America is an audacious manoeuvre, and while a lot of the Americanisms feel misplaced, having Redmayne’s Newt as British effectively ushers the viewer into the new environment.
The characters in the world of Fantastic Beasts are less fanciful than those from the Harry Potter epoch, and their behaviour is a lot more mature. And while it remains a family-friendly film, the appeal (and perhaps the intention) is here tailored for an older audience. Unfortunately, the momentum is something of an oddity. On one hand, the story moves along at a breakneck pace and yet, on the other hand, it meanders and drags its feet all the way to the finish line. Perhaps it’s the unnecessary 133-minute running time that weighs the plot down, or maybe it’s the abundance of creatures throughout the film that congest the story; either way, the film’s narrative certainly struggles and is often lost in a convoluted mess of special effects.
With that said, the line-up of talent is impressive and the ensemble of performances is wonderful. Redmayne is delightful in the lead, his signature quirk and introverted mannerisms fitting Rowling’s cinematic universe perfectly. His on-screen presence is commanding, and at times bares a striking resemblance to a younger Hugh Grant. Combined with an instantly iconic wardrobe (Dr Who-inspired?) and an understated intelligence, Newt Scamander is a character creation that begs for further exploration, and one that holds many colourful secrets. The supporting cast are also great, with Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury, Fanboys) offering the strongest performance of the lot. His part in the film is a huge revaluation and an unexpected asset to the new world Rowling has created.
Author JK Rowling wrote the original screenplay, which is based on a text book referenced in the Harry Potter series. With no literary text to remain faithful to, she has given herself the freedom to work within the cinematic space and, enjoyably so, has a much bigger canvas to work with. Despite Fantastic Beasts‘ shortcomings, a solid foundation has been laid for a strong new franchise. Here’s to a fresh start.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10