Harry Potter was a cultural phenomenon the likes of which the entertainment world almost never sees. As a franchise of both books and films, it captured the imagination of the generations that grew up with it, so any return to Rowling’s wizarding world was going to come with high expectations, as well as a lot of worries. Thankfully, there’s nothing in Fantastic Beasts to sully the HP legacy (and hearing the first few strains of Hedwig’s Theme remains a balm for the soul), though this ‘20s New York-set entry doesn’t match up to the very best entries in its parent series.
Directed by David Yates, who helmed the later instalments of Harry Potter, there’s certainly a tonal holdover from HP to FB, though the shift in focus from English schoolkids to professional wizards in America ensures that this feels like a worthwhile continuation of the universe. Adding to that is JK Rowling’s first screenwriting gig, loosely adapting her own mini-book (a catalogue of magical creatures) into a full-length film with a planned four sequels. Rowling’s script inexperience occasionally makes itself evident in the dialogue, but her worldbuilding skills remain second to none, the magical alt-New York immediately embedding itself in your imagination.
Both a lovely urban sprawl full of magical life and a slightly biting look at US social structures, this version of the Big Apple plays host to tourist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard zoologist with a TARDIS-esque briefcase housing multitudes of beasties. Thanks to a mix-up at the bank, he accidentally swaps cases with muggle (or no-maj, in American wizard parlance) baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who lets a bunch of animals free. Capable of huge destruction, Newt’s ‘pets’ could not have arrived in America at a worse time, with a war between magic and non-magic brewing.
After Newt’s creatures get loose, magical investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) brings him and Jacob to her apartment for questioning, where they meet Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). From here, things spiral into a nicely silly adventure, as the team tours New York in search of everything from a randy rhino to a Niffler – a platypus-like creature that loves to steal anything shiny. All the creatures have meticulous designs and are fun to hang out with, even if the integration of CG and reality sometimes leaves a little to be desired. This problem doesn’t affect the best part of the film though, when Newt and Jacob explore the full extent of the world within Newt’s briefcase.
Filled with multiple landscapes, climates, and time zones, it’s a world you wish you could live in and a brilliant reintroduction to the most ambitious types of magic found in Rowling’s universe. In fact, with the plentiful in-home scenes as well as the city-wide stakes, Fantastic Beasts manages to combine the fun everyday spells of early Harry Potter films with the bombastic combat of the Deathly Hallows finale. Aside from the animal hunt, Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves and the Barebone family, led by Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller, are up to nefarious schemes, but to go into any more detail enters spoiler territory.
Redmayne turns in a good performance as Newt, bringing a hunched, socially anxious edge to the hero. He struggles with eye contact, meaning his burgeoning relationship with the rest of the monster hunters comes with a nice progression not just emotionally, but also in terms of Redmayne’s body language and vocal mannerisms. In support, Sudol and Fogler completely steal the film, with Jacob’s sub-plot the most emotionally involving element of the whole thing despite his being the comic relief. The whole team shares bags of chemistry, so even when their banter is flatly written, it lands with a smile rather than a groan. If Fantastic Beasts can follow the Harry Potter formula of improving with each film, then suddenly those four follow-ups look a lot more appetising.