Harry Potter and the 1920’s spin off.
The first spin off of the behemoth Harry Potter franchise lands in cinemas and, though it has some flaws, some of them pretty major, it turns out to be an intriguing start in to what could be (if the studio is to be believed) a major new thread of movies.
Fantastic Beasts tells the story of Newt Scamander, a man who is a wizard zoologist, who brings his case of fantastic creatures to New York in the hope of re-homing a lost animal. Unfortunately whilst there his case manages to open itself and his beasts escape across the sprawling city. The ensuing chaos results in a conflict between a number of magical factions and a group of anti-wizzard protesters.
Where the original franchise was steeped in unavoidable lore and occasionally awkward, MacGuffin-based, storytelling. Fantastic Beasts has, at its heart, a much more personal, and human conflict, as many of the characters that get caught up in it aren’t trying to be hero’s or aiming to fulfil some kind of destiny. Instead they’re simply trying to go about their business and it’s their everyday life that becomes magical, rather than having an isolated magical world to drive the story foward. As a result of this, the inventive settings, props and costumes feel far more grounded and believable, which in turn allows the story to be much more emotionally engaging.
Though the narrative does get caught up in its own twists and turns a few more times than is necessary. With so many different groups of characters, finding balance is a notoriously hard thing to do, and Beasts falls a little short in giving every character adequate screen time or valid motivations, but there’s enough here to make you want to watch as the story advances, and make you root for one of the central characters.
Speaking of central characters there are three that deserve specific mention, the first is Queenie Goldstein, who is a mind reading witch, Potter’s firstly outwardly flirty and sexual character. In any other film this sounds cliché but she’s written believably, with genuine emotion and she fits in well with the films more mature tone but more on that later. The second is Jacob Kowalski, who steals every scene he’s in. He is a constant positive force in an overly dark film, without him the movie would be much harder to watch. This is made even better by Dan Fogler’s commitment to physical comedy in the role, his facial expressions are reminiscent of classic Laurel and Hardy which fits perfectly in to the setting of the movie.
Unfortunately, such praise can’t be given to Redmayne, who plays protagonist Scamander. He bumbles through the film playing an almost stereotypical “English-man in New York”, this works when the character has an obvious under lying strength but Redmayne only ever taps in to this once. For the rest of the film he commands absolutely no power on screen and it’s the ensemble behind him who do more to advance the plot.
Though As with every Harry Potter movie, it is the staging of it that stands out as the highlight of the production. Fantastic Beasts is set in the late 20’s and the film feels incredibly authentic. The visuals are dark and washed out, but not in a way that hides the character of the era. The sound track taps in to traditional sounds from that time, with muted horns and swinging piano, if anything it would have been nice to hear more of this and less of a traditional Harry Potter score. The thing that stands out most about the staging though is the costume design, every hat, jacket and shoe feels as though it could have come from the time itself and is weathered very believably, every item of clothing feels well worn and lived in.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a more mature movie than has been seen in the Harry Potter franchise to date. It’s more sexual, much darker, much creepier and it could have been much more intense if it just had a little more balance, one or two less twists and a far better leading man. There’s enough here to enjoy on the first or second viewing, and the film is clearly well made, it just doesn’t quite reach the high bar of the stories told in the franchises past.