Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them FILM REVIEW
Release: 18 November 2016
Distributor: Warner Bros Pictures
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell
It’s hard to know what to call this newly commissioned series of five movies. Announcing that you like “the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them franchise” is somewhat unwieldy. It’s not technically a “Harry Potter” franchise, as it’s a prequel. You can’t call it something catchy like the “MCU”, as you can with the Marvel films. And the official, all-encompassing title of these sagas is “JK Rowling’s Wizarding World” – hardly rolls off the tongue, does it?
Personally, we’d like to name this the first film in the “Wizarding Universe”, aka the “WU”. And we can happily report that the WU in 1926 is a grand old place to explore, much to the relief of all those who’ve been waiting for more magical adventuring since the final Potter film in 2011. Be warned, however: this is probably a hugely confusing introduction for those who’ve never cracked the spine of a Potter book or seen Daniel Radcliffe flash his lightning-scar on screen. It’s comfortingly familiar for the rest of us, though… yet, quite properly, not too familiar.
For a start, we’re in ’20s New York, where witches and wizards live alongside Muggles (in the States they’re called No-Majs, which might make more sense logically but just doesn’t sound as nice, does it?). Magic is heavily regulated here: you need a permit to own a wand, for example, and the US’s version of the Ministry Of Magic is so paranoid about its powers becoming common knowledge that it’s run by a bunch of nervous, twitchy hardnuts. Leading their crackdown on anything unregulated is Colin Farrell’s stony-faced Percival Graves, a wizard who also has a secret connection to a teenager in a miserable orphanage (Ezra Miller), as well as fabulously cool coat-and-scarf combo and the fastest wand-waving skills in the West.
As the film opens, Graves is on the trail of a mysterious creature that’s smashing up Manhattan tenement blocks and freaking out the locals. All this coincides with the arrival of Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander and his amazing bottomless briefcase, which contains a menagerie of magical creatures that he’s collected from around the world. After a brief mix-up with a hapless No-Maj named Jacob (Dan Fogler), some of these beasts get loose and start causing havoc – and it’s up to Newt, his new friend Jacob and a former Auror named Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) to round them up again.
The movie does let itself down a bit by ensuring that too much happens in the first 20 minutes or so, barely allowing the audience time to draw breath before tossing them into the action. Redmayne’s propensity to mumble doesn’t help matters, either – particularly when he’s constantly naming new creatures and you can’t decipher what on Earth he’s just said. (“Bowtruckle” is possibly the best imaginary creature name in the history of humanity: the least he could do is say it clearly.) But thankfully, once the film stops wallowing in endless beastly introductions and chases and actually gets on with the plot, it becomes a fascinating ride.
The special effects are gorgeous, too. If you thought Doctor Strange rode off with all the show-ribbons for pretty CGI this year, think again – never has rubble flying through the air looked so sublime. Some of the creatures are a bit hit-and-miss (there’s a giant rhino that feels a little like something you’d see in Attack Of The Clones) but others, such as a pulsating mass of black smoke, are so beautiful and weirdly alive that you can’t stop gawping at them. And as for the aforementioned Bowtruckle? You almost expect to see him dancing at the end of the credits, baby Groot-style. (Sadly, he doesn’t – there’s no end-credits tag at all.)
Mumbling aside, Redmayne nails the perfect formula of geeky, warm and thoroughly British that will hopefully serve him through the upcoming movies and beyond, although we suspect he’ll grow some harder edges as things get darker – because things always get darker in the WU (we half expected the final Potter film to be nothing but a black screen). That said, there’s not much to his character, really: he’s just a nice chap who chases magical creatures around. Some more depth might be welcome, as he’s so black-and-white he could pass for a zebra.
Ezra Miller, meanwhile, does a pretty fair impression of Adam Driver’s tortured Kylo Ren but with extra greasiness, and almost steals the film by its finale. Fogler’s Jacob provides most of the laughs, particularly from his interactions with adorable witch Queenie (Alison Sudol). He’s also a handy plot device to allow us to find out what the hell’s going on, because characters have to keep stopping to explain magical things to him. Luckily, we’re also allowed to figure a few things out for ourselves – the film may be for kids, but it’s not patronising.
And Farrell, weirdly, is so good at being a broody wizard that it’s as though he’s been practicing with his wand in his bedroom. In the same way that Ralph Fiennes brought something Shakespearean to Potter, Farrell brings gravitas to this otherwise fluffy critter-flick. A few of his scenes may even end up curling your toes, and not in a good way…
All in all, what we have here are two hours and 13 minutes of fun world-expanding that work both as a self-contained movie (there’s no cliffhanger, thankfully) and as a precursor to what could be a truly magnificent saga. JK Rowling’s WU is back with a vengeance. And if you’ll forgive our probably unforgivable pun, all we can say is… “WU-hoo!”
Review by Jayne Nelson