"Time is running out Mr Scamander."
Before any movie I try to remain objective going in and not get caught up in my own personal expectations concerning said movie. However literally moments before I sat down to watch ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ someone likened the film’s aesthetic to “The Untouchables with wizards” and shortly after, I was made aware of rumours that Matt Smith was originally up for the title role. So at that point all I could think about was a movie in which Matt Smith teams up with Sean Connery to take down dark sorcerer Robert De Niro, which sounds like greatest thing in the history of anything ever. But anyway, this is the version we got, and it’s good too.
A Young wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures where the atmosphere is already tense due to a strained relationships between the magic community and the outside world and a mysterious darkness that lies in waiting.
Despite the fact that proven franchises and existing brands are supposedly reigning supreme at the box office right now, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is commendable for mostly sticking to the description of its creators, being that it is a story within J.K Rowling’s wizarding world and does not really contain any of the characters that defined those original seven books and subsequent eight movies. While that may change in their pre-planned sequels, for now this movie remains a standalone story that opens up an entirely new world we’ve yet to fully explore.
This is why it is hardly surprising that the biggest star of the movie is ultimately that world. The characters of the movie are endearing enough but ultimately the whole process feels like a showcase for new environments that the audience will be allowed to explore. That being said, when they are all as imaginatively crafted and exquisitely realised as they are here then it’s difficult to complain too much. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut here and the way she and director David Yates build and expand their cinematic world is superb, with terrific set and costume design, state of the art visual effects and the titular beasts that are, as promised, fantastic.
However while Rowling’s script revels in its expansive universe, it suffers slightly in terms of its pace and structure. The characters don’t feel fully involved within the plot, which occasionally seems sprawling and unfocussed in how it juggles several different plot arcs and brings them together in what can’t help but feel like a coincidence heavy story. The eagerness for world building is also reflected in how the protagonist relates to the antagonist. Rather than having their development intertwined and juxtaposed like Harry and Voldemort, Newt and his adversary never develop anything close to a connection or involvement with one another aside from their final encounter. There isn’t a belief to defy, a shared history or any real connection beyond the fact that Newt is going about his own business, while separately the antagonist of the film is going about their business and the two just happen to come to blows when the two plots converge at the end.
But speaking of New Scamander, the more I watched Redmayne the more I believed the rumours that Matt Smith was in consideration. In many ways both Scamander’s personality and Redmayne’s performance reminded me of Smith’s tenure in ‘Doctor Who’. The eccentricity, subtle yet distinctive mannerisms, separation from the rest of the world and hints of a damaged past all echo the Eleventh Doctor, even the costume and hair seem similar in style. But taken on its own Redmayne’s performance is an enjoyable one. He makes for an engaging guide through this world and his obvious wonder with each new discovery is utterly infectious. He doesn’t necessarily undergo any emotional arc or strong development but Newt remains an entertaining and empathetic character nonetheless.
The companions that accompany him (the more you think about it the more this film turns into an episode of ‘Doctor Who’, even the plot of alien creatures run amok in New York isn’t something beyond the realm of possibility as a story for that series) are also pleasing to watch as well as interesting enough. Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol fill their roles nicely as do Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller, but the standout is without a doubt Dan Fogler. Both Fogler’s performance and the character he is portraying are utterly joyful from start to finish, as being a non-magic user he observes this world through fresh eyes and it is wonderful to behold. But amid this is an undertone of sadness that speaks even louder. So despite starting off as the comic relief, Fogel is ultimately handed one of the biggest and the most satisfying emotional crux of the film, which he handles brilliantly.
This plays into the films larger thematic undertones that ultimately separate it from its predecessors. As I said at the start this feels like a standalone story not just for its contained plot (aside from one small revelation that feels added for sequel bait) but for its more mature issues that include clashing cultures and ideologies, fanaticism, racism, bigotry, abuse and while none of them are explored in great depth they help separate the movie from the Harry potter series, even if it isn’t quite as captivating.
Whimsical and wonderful, though lacking in some areas ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is likely to please the appetite of any long term Pott-Head.