JK Rowling’s Wizarding World, the Harry Potter Extended Cinematic Universe if you will, is plainly a cinematic cash cow ripe for milking. The main serious gobbled-up the thick end of $8 billion in box office receipts, so conventional wisdom dictates that Warner Bros are unlikely to do anything other than exploit the property for anything less than a king’s ransom..
That’s not to say that this first instalment of the spin-off franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is a cynical cash-in. The first in this series, of which we’re told there will be five, is a fun and frivolous adventure that tees up the series nicely and leaves you wanting more. But it’s also, at times, stuffy and stiff visually and some of the more admirable and interesting political subtext gets lost in the atmosphere and feels undercooked or possibly withheld with future instalments in mind.
Set in the 1920’s, decades before the events of the Harry Potter movies, British Ministry of Magic employee and magical beast devotee Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City to continue his work studying the creatures. Predictably, they escape and begin to wreak havoc across the city, threatening to expose the hidden wizarding world to the wider American public. Scamander therefore finds himself being scrutinised by the American wizarding authorities, in particular Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) a disgraced Auror who sees the case as a chance to prove her mettle following an embarrassment that has seen her relegated to the basement of the Magical Congress. Tagging along is existentially depressed factory worker and No-Maj (American slang for Muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who dreams of a more exciting life, specifically owning a patisserie, and as a witness to the magical phenomena, is hastily enlisted as Scamander’s deputy beast-wrangler.
It’s something of a mixed bag (or sorting hat), predominantly pretty good but with a couple of negatives that disappoint rather than infuriate. Chief among the pleasures is the excellent creature design of Scamander’s bizarre pets that are really the stars of the show. There’s a welcome sense of dynamism and variety across the strange menagerie of creatures that inhabit this magical realm. Jewellery-obsessed platypus things and furry snakes that expand or shrink depending on the size of the space they inhabit, or invisible, precognitive monkeys and what appear to be giant Scarabs. The highlight of the movie is a charming scene in which we delve into Mr. Scamander’s suitcase and explore the zoo that lies within.
Redmayne and Fogler make an amiable duo, reminiscent of buddy cop comedies with Redmayne’s Scamander radiating charming befuddlement and Fogler exhibiting a permanent look of wonder, confusion, fear and delight all at the same time. It’s altogether much more light-hearted than the later Harry Potter movies and the change of pace from the destruction and pain of the end of the Potter saga to a slightly more innocent and stylish world is welcome.
JK Rowling’s script unsurprisingly provides plenty of socio-political subtext that adds a level of sophistication to the drama but sometimes leaves you hungry for more clarity. Presenting an American magical society in a permanent state of paranoia and fear, bound by restrictive and discriminatory segregation rules, Rowling meditates not just on 20th century US politics, but the current state of the global political climate in general. It’s a largely fascinating extra dimension, but Samantha Morton’s evangelical magic truther feels underwritten and elusive, and a sub plot involving a billionaire media baron’s son running for President is jettisoned without out ever gaining traction.
A larger sense of disappointment, or perhaps feeling of a missed opportunity, is the continuing involvement of director David Yates. Yates did great work on Deathly Hallows Part 1, presenting a grim, verité picture of bleakness filled with dread. His work on the other Potter movies has felt less distinct and lacking in singular, magical vision. Towards the end of Fantastic Beasts you begin to notice the blocky, regular spacing of extras and a general lack of vitality and some sense of going through the motions.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a decent starting point, but Yates is a steady hand and probably nothing more. I’d like to see Warner Bros take more of a risk with its property and give it a chance to properly invoke a sense magic.
Fantasy, Adventure | UK, 2016 | 12A | Warner Bros. | 18th November 2016 (UK) | Dir.David Yates |Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Alain Sudol, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton