Five years later, and we have yet another film set in the magical world of Harry Potter. Naturally, director David Yates, who directed four Harry Potter films, takes the reins of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Potter universe’s expansion.
The film opens with a thrust into the action and an introduction to a certain “something” that has torn up a home in New York. Policeman Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) stands over the scene as the audience observes the destruction. The year is 1926, and the city is ripe with wizards, Muggles and those who choose to cast evil upon them.
Yates, along with writer J.K. Rowling, paints a beautiful picture of an expanded Harry Potter universe in 133 minutes worth of film. There is an exceptional use of CGI, from the smallest to the largest scaled scenes, and practical effects. This is no Hogwarts, mind you, but the film eventually makes you feel forget about events that took place years later.
I say “eventually” because Fantastic Beasts requires a bit of patience during its first act. There’s a slow burn associated with even the intial appearance of Newt Scamander (Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne), a wizard kicked out of Hogwarts. His accent is expected albeit a tad tough to understand at times. Eventually (there’s that word again) the dialogue gets rolling and any untrained ears become familiarized with Redmayne’s British tongue.
However, I think the soft-spoken, awkward and generally antisocial character of Newt demands a soft-spoken and awkward performance, which Redmayne delivers. There is a particular scene where I quickly jotted the note, “He’s in his element.” Newt and his newest compadre, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a baker, fall into the suitcase we see throughout the film. This suitcase of Scamander’s is full of beasts he wishes to protect, nurture and soon write a book about. Similar to the reveal of Hogwarts castle as it comes into frame in 2001, there was a sense of exploration. The James Newton Howard-led score settles into the moment and we’re given a full-fledged lesson on many beasts. It was a scene that had me smiling along with the rest of the theater, and it felt natural thanks to Redmayne. He also portrayed Scamander well enough to make us empathize along with the character during a certain sequence later in the film.
Although, the best performance during Fantastic Beasts goes to Dan Fogler. He brought the genuine humor, was not an over-the-top No Maj (what Americans call Muggles) and brought the humane touch to a film about animals that can store two tons of gold in their stomach and wizards flying around New York, casting umbrellas and force fields with a wand.
As the film progresses and wannabe wizard cop Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) fails to bring Newt into custody, the two become attracted to one another. Maybe not (yet) the lovey-dovey type of attraction, but their eventual discovery of similar social awkwardness warms your heart.
The conflict of the film surrounds a foster family led by American No-Maj and leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). This foster family’s aim is to exterminate witches. Lou beats one of her foster children, Credence (Ezra Miller), for the heck of it. Throughout Fantastic Beasts we see Graves and Credence meet, with Graves’ intention to find the Obscurus, an evil entity which seeks wizards who suppress their powers. Ezra Miller, who’s gearing up for his role as Flash in Justice League, emitted a spooky persona despite speaking for the first time at nearly an hour into the film.
Colin Farrell fits the cunning role of Graves incredibly well, although one knock on his role is that it felt … underused — as if he were being held back ever so slightly. There can only be so much room in one film, however, and based on recent news there will be five sequels in the Fantastic Beasts saga, that’s plenty of time to flesh out characters, right?
The strongest point of the film lies in the second act. There’s a flow that culminates in some of the more memorable scenes, like a hybrid Rhino beast slipping and sliding on ice with the intention of possibly eating Kowalski. There’s the buildup to its unexpected ending, as well.
Speaking of the conclusion, I feel it’s where Yates struggled ever so slightly. The grandiose fight scene lasted all but 10-15 minutes and felt as if it were wrapped up too nicely. Sure, dialogue suffers most times in favor of action, but even after the main event, the tempo and interactions felt as if it were a sprint towards the finish line.
The biggest takeaway is the solid foundation this film has built for its five successors. I find it hard to believe this saga will enjoy riches akin to the Harry Potter films at the box office, but the foreseeable future of this expanded universe is promising.
Attended an IMAX 2D screening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them thanks to Warner Bros. The film is rated PG-13 and releases in North America on Nov. 18th.