The story of The Boy Who Lived may be concluded on the big screen at this point, but Warner Bros. seems to have found another way to continue digging into the rich lore of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. It seems that long before there was Harry Potter, there was Newt Scamander, a fantastical beast expert that would one day pen textbooks that are carefully studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. During the time of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them however, which unfolds many decades beforehand in 1926, Newt is still a wizarding school dropout toiling away for the Ministry of Magic, and trying to appeal for a sense of reason in an unproven craft, within a world that is extremely divided on matters of magic versus mundane.
It would be easy to initially view Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as little more than a cynical excuse for Warner Bros. to keep making money off of a resolved movie franchise, but something that’s a pleasant surprise about this distant Harry Potter prequel is that it’s actually a pretty great movie, and a worthy new franchise starter. It’s considerably below the level of the finest Harry Potter movies, mind you, existing somewhere in the upper-middle of the Harry Potter franchise’s quality scale, mostly along the lines of a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince level of quality; Still very good, if not the best that this world has ever offered. If you’re looking for an entertaining and enjoyable return to the Harry Potter universe then, even a separate corner in the distant past, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers a charming, flashy adventure that you’re bound to have a lot of fun with.
Our new protagonist, Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, doesn’t have much in common with Harry Potter. Rather than being an accidental hero thrust into a world and conflict that he has difficulty fully comprehending or mastering within a coming-of-age story, Newt is a fully-grown misunderstood genius who is very willfully entering a hostile world, in this case, New York City circa 1926. Newt is quiet, awkward and focused, being a distinct and memorable man with more trouble blending in than he initially anticipates, which is part of the reason he ends up caught in a major conflict, one that began with an innocent effort to do right by some exotic creatures.
As the movie’s title implies, the fantastical animals of the wizarding world are a huge part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and a focal point of Newt’s attention. The titular beasts are often the best part of this movie, being strange, unpredictable, sometimes imposing, and yet often adorable. It’s easy to invest in the fates of these creatures too, as 1926 has strict laws about exterminating any magical creatures that the wizarding community happens to encounter, which helps the audience feel accepting of the inevitable mischief that Newt’s escaped critters cause around New York. The upbeat fun of the creatures contrasts nicely with the dramatic character conflicts that occasionally crop up during the movie, particularly since everything begins with a simple case of briefcase-switching, and a few quirky critters accidentally getting loose as a result.
The movie’s incidents begin after a chance encounter with Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, a Muggle, or, ‘No-Maj’, as non-wizard folk are apparently called in America, who ends up dragged along with Newt after being the catalyst of unforeseen mishaps. Jacob is an earnest man who simply wants to raise the money to open a bakery, and serves as the likable everyman that gives us an accessible window into the feeling of going along on a wizarding adventure. Fogler has had a history of picking some less than desirable roles in the past, but he’s finally given an outstanding character here, as Jacob quickly becomes the real heart of the movie beyond Newt, offering a grounded, wide-eyed perspective that nicely substitutes for the younger Harry, finally extending the franchise to an appropriately non-magical perspective. Fogler’s comedic talents are also put to some of their best use yet in this role, as Jacob quickly becomes one of the movie’s funniest human characters, almost rivaling the unyielding charm of the titular beasts.
The lead protagonists are rounded off by Tina Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston, a former disgraced Auror who begins getting involved in Newt’s affairs, in the wake of a destructive incident in the city that appears to have been caused by an unknown beast. Initially a foil, Tina soon after becomes an ally, and a grounding force for the oblivious, big-dreaming Newt, who seems blissfully unaware of just how much his creature quest is rocking the boat for the New York wizarding community. Tina is also nicely complemented by her flirty, free-spirited sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, who has a talent for reading minds, and takes a particular shine to Jacob. Much like Newt, you’ll learn some very interesting background on the Goldstein sisters as the movie goes on, who are interesting, well-developed characters in their own right, just like Newt and Jacob.
As rich as the protagonists’ history is, the antagonists also have their own share of interesting development, particularly since most of the movie avoids having a centralized villain. The specter of a fanatical wizard called Gellert Grindelwald looms over the movie, another character that might be familiar to avid Harry Potter fans as having a key history with a very beloved Harry Potter personality in the distant past, though the closest thing that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has to an actual main antagonist is Percival Graves, played by Colin Farrell, one of the highest-ranking Aurors of the wizarding government in New York, who has his own agenda with stopping the issue of the runaway beasts. Graves is not only the arm of a wizarding government that appears heavy-handed, though still follows the law as it is written, but also has a loose connection to a quiet local boy named Credence Barebone, played by Ezra Miller. Credence wants to be a wizard, despite very evidently not being part of the wizarding community, and Miller is one of the biggest standouts in terms of performances, playing a character that is easy to pity and very tragic, yet one that audiences will want to see better things for.
When all is said and done though, as much as the characters have a surprising amount of development and care, likely a byproduct of this movie’s script being written by J.K. Rowling herself, the real star of the piece remains the beasts, who provide the biggest heart to what would otherwise be a more foundational storyline in this first installment for the Fantastic Beasts franchise. That’s not to say that there are no surprises with the characters in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, because the climax does carry a few sizable curveballs with personalities you thought you knew, though it’s Newt’s critters that often serve as the biggest and most memorable obstacles in this journey through 1926 New York’s wizarding landscape. Because of this, the creatures all steal the show whenever they’re on screen, lending themselves to great lore expansion and set pieces alike, ultimately being extra enjoyable pit stops in a wizarding community that’s otherwise plagued by fear and uncertainty in this era, even long before Voldemort came onto the scene.
As I said, beyond the presence of wizards and fantastical creatures, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has very little in common with the Harry Potter franchise that it’s sharing a universe with. Its story is built on entirely different circumstances, struggles and limitations than the events at Hogwarts so many years in the future, and that’s all the more true in that it gives us our first proper look at the American wizarding world, after we’ve spent eight Harry Potter movies firmly in the British one. Newt is still an Englishman, aptly being a link to the series’ roots, though Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does wisely capitalize on the opportunity to create a wizarding tale and setting that is equal parts familiar and new.
It’s not completely off-base to say that this franchise is the Hobbit equivalent to Harry Potter’s Lord of the Rings at this point, if that makes sense. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has a very tenuous connection to Harry Potter’s events for now, much like the first Hobbit movie to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and just as Harry Potter was deeper, darker and more emotional, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, by contrast, more adventurous and light-hearted for the most part. The brooding, challenging and often unnerving depth and drama that the Harry Potter franchise exhibited in its later movies has been taken out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though that may be good news to anyone who felt that the Harry Potter movies got too dark and angsty past the halfway point.
As much as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a bit more general audience-friendly and fun though, it also doesn’t have the same degree of raw depth at this point. Not everyone who is looking for a meaty storyline will be fully satisfied with this movie and its more straightforward adventure, but those simply wanting to enjoy themselves will find that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an entertaining experience with enough timely social insight and enough promising character depth to make it a satisfying package. It does definitely feel like several of the most tantalizing story elements are being deliberately held back for this movie’s four confirmed sequels though.
Director, David Yates has helmed every Harry Potter-related movie production since first coming on to the franchise in 2007’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and that’s not changing at this point, since Yates has already pledged a commitment to direct all five Fantastic Beasts movies. Yates’ direction definitely brings a recognizable Harry Potter sensibility to a mostly disconnected plot that has very little to do with the Harry Potter movie octalogy, and while many of Yates’ flashy flourishes and wizarding tricks will be quite par for the course to avid Harry Potter fans, they also help to provide a pleasant sense of familiarity to this new arm of the wizarding world, should you already know the Harry Potter movies back to front.
Yates is hardly complacent in the directors’ chair though, even as many of his signature directing touches feel very familiar at this point. Yates proves aptly able to direct this all-new cast well in making great use of a script that is exceptional at balancing humour, heart and some fairly effective drama, even if the drama is a lot lighter than the later Harry Potter stories. Another thing that Yates’ direction continues to capture well in this distant prequel is an effective sense of seething, ominous intrigue, which still manages to add some nice weight to a story that is mostly about hunting what is practically the wizarding equivalent of Pokemon.
Yates seems to be particularly careful to avoid a movie that is so dark that it overrides the charm, a feat that he also managed with the best Harry Potter productions that he helmed, though this time with a complete removal of the often potent angst. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them effectively manages to feel polished and well-presented, if not always consistent with its editing and pacing, though that’s a fairly miniscule nitpick that mostly disappears in the movie’s latter half. The beasts manage to stand a bit taller than many of the supporting human personalities in terms of being memorable, though there’s certainly plenty of time to achieve an even more superb balance between characters and story pacing in the sequels.
James Newton Howard becomes the latest composer to add an all-new score to the wizarding world, and also has the added challenge of recognizing those sensibilities without recurring Harry Potter themes to lean on. Fortunately, Howard’s score is very delightful, having the proper weight when necessary, but also being effectively playful and cuddly, emulating the initially imposing, but inevitably harmless beasts that Newt carries in his briefcase. The grand, sweeping scale of many of the Harry Potter scores isn’t fully replicated in the soundtrack of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though the music suite makes up for it in sheer charm.
The rest of the audio work however is just as potent as any of the most dramatic and thrilling Harry Potter installments, particularly in IMAX theatres. The powerful spells of the wizarding citizens still carry as much punch as they ever did, but the audio is even more effective at capturing the beauty and might of many of Newt’s magical animals. The same effectiveness is achieved with tiny, cute critters as well, who scurry, leap and pilfer throughout New York with lovable mischief, proving that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has an audio job that succeeds just as much at the small details as it does at the big ones.
Even being a story currently unfolding on a smaller scale, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them boasts just as much in the way of impressive visuals as many of the best Harry Potter movies. In fact, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is so visually extraordinary at its best that it even outclasses many of the Harry Potter movies in terms of sheer beauty and visual ambition! The magical creatures that inhabit a large part of the story are full of so much life and charm that they often cease to feel like effects. Even when entire portions of the movie are occasionally shot on green screen, and the actors occasionally have to act off of larger-than-life beasts that aren’t actually there, everything in the world of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages to feel real, with a fantastical, surreal quality added to animal strains that make these critters feel like they could feasibly exist in the real world. There’s a lot of great effort put into the biology of these wizarding animals, and that biology is wonderfully reflected in how much the movie’s visuals help them come to life in any given location.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is definitely at its best when viewed in 3D as well, and I dare say that this movie has possibly the best and most enjoyable 3D presentation of almost any other movie that came out in 2016! The 3D can be fairly intense, so anyone who doesn’t think that they can handle it should stick with a 2D screening, but you definitely don’t get the full effect in 2D, since Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does quite a lot with its 3D elements. The movie appears to have been shot from the ground up for 3D, rather than having a post-3D conversion slapped on it afterward, and that leads to a lot of very ambitious 3D work, including monsters and magic flying out of the screen and around the audience, just as objects and terrain also appear to burst and fly in every direction, sometimes even hanging out of the frame in three-dimensional space. Like this year’s Ghostbusters reboot, there’s a sort of ‘theme park attraction’ element to the 3D in this movie, and those willing to appreciate it will find a 3D showing to be an ideal, practically mandatory way to enjoy the experience.
By contrast, the movie’s IMAX 3D cut is a bit less essential, though you do get some enhanced audio, 3D potency and screen real estate for your extra money in that case. That said, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them looks very letterboxed in IMAX, and doesn’t seem fully optimized for that format, at least visually. The extra potent audio is enough to make the IMAX 3D cut worth it for big spenders, though many viewers are probably fine with a regular digital 3D showing, where they can still enjoy a lot of the super-immersive and eye-popping 3D imagery. Regardless of how you see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them though, it stands alongside Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as one of the most visually stunning movies of 2016, and one that simply demands to be experienced in theatres, and in 3D.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a visually impeccable, highly charming and easily enjoyable return to the world of Harry Potter, without any need for an added love or understanding of the Harry Potter universe. Even if you somehow haven’t seen a single Harry Potter movie, read a single Harry Potter book, or perhaps don’t remember their events in any great detail, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them still serves as an excellent jumping-on point into this wizarding universe, providing a great sense of adventurous fun for any audience, and opening the franchise back up to young kids again with its more light-hearted storytelling.
At this point though, as much as it is a worthy franchise starter that you’ll want to see more from in the four upcoming sequels, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them still hasn’t quite reached the high point of the best Harry Potter movies. Like I said, it’s around an upper-middle level of quality on that scale, though that’s still probably far better than many more cynical audiences with no investment or care for Harry Potter would expect. You won’t always be blown away if you’re a Harry Potter veteran, but you will definitely have fun here.
I never imagined how much I would ultimately be left very much looking forward to what’s next for the Fantastic Beasts franchise, but I have to hand it to J.K. Rowling, David Yates and the rest of the cast and crew; They’ve managed to fairly effectively capture a different batch of lightning in a very similar bottle once again. They might very well be wizards in their own right for that unlikely success, and if you’ll forgive the pun, I’m glad to see that the cinematic magic of this world is still alive and well!
- Superb performances, particularly from Redmayne and Fogler
- The titular beasts often steal the show
- Masterful visuals and 3D presentation
- Occasionally wonky pacing and editing
- Several story elements only exist to sequel-bait