This review is spoiler-free.
From the familiar warm tingles of John Williams’ theme, to a wonderfully cinematic filling in of backstory through magical newspapers, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’s opening isn’t shy about its Harry Potter roots. Nor should it be. Bringing back together director David Yates (who helmed the final four Potter films), producer David Heyman and author J K Rowling – this time as a debut screenwriter – it’s a tantalising reunion, a platform for a quintet of films set some 70 years before the Harry Potter stories we already know.
The setting this time is 1926 New York, brought lavishly to life with the skill and production design integral to this particular cinematic world (the sheer craft is quite incredible). Within ten minutes, I found myself settled back, looking forward to properly meeting a new bunch of magical characters. In amongst the occasional reference to Hogwarts and its future inhabitants, Fantastic Beast’s world-building soaks you up so quickly, that – even though the faces on the screen are different – there’s a sense of old friends at work.
At the centre of this new adventure is Newt Scamander, played with intrinsic British reserve – and a dab of Willy Wonka – by Eddie Redmayne. For all Redmayne’s youthful poise, this is notably the first film in the Potterverse to be led by adults, with only one significant young character in the ensemble (so far).
Much, thus, rests on Redmayne’s shoulders. His Newt’s a genial, nervous, itchy guide, an introverted and slightly unusual hero for the centre of such a sizeable story. Rowling’s screenplay gives us enough to make him instantly interesting, if not too much to leave us feeling like we’ve got to know a great deal about him by the end of the film. He does feel a little more a tour guide at times, though, than the catalyst for a story.
With the introduction of Newt also comes a few crucial details. His mysterious suitcase – with a special Muggles setting – keeps clicking open and shut, and we learn, as the promos have told us, that it’s in here he keeps just some of the imaginative, assorted beasts of the film’s title. For Scamander is in America to track down and protect such beasts, an ahead-of-his-time conservationist with a penchant for whipping out his magic wand when required. He’s supposed to be quietly going about his work, but that’s not easy when there’s always something threatening to burst out of his battered case, and in turn put him on the wrong side of Colin Farrell’s oddly flat director of magical security, Percival Graves.
The early stages of the film also draw up the divisions in this world, and it’d be wrong to call some of Rowling’s points here as subtext. They’re right up there, designed to be noticed. The cauldron of tensions between the magic and the human world are a pivotal part of the unease she sets up, with people afraid to declare who they really are for fear of being set on by those in power, and those who are influenced by them. Rowling makes very strong points with surgical precision, and as always with her writing, she’s never afraid to treat her audience as intelligent.
What is surprising is that this time, she doesn’t really offer up much of a compelling narrative.
Instead, what we get is more of a variety show than a story, with lots of Post-It notes full of good ideas, but only a weak marker pen that’s running out of ink to pull them close together. The bare bones of the film are inevitably some way off the richness of the Potter films, but even if you treat this as standalone, what you get is a lot of characters building up to a CG-dominated third act. With some delicious-looking pastries to divert you.
It’s as it heads towards its finale that the film makes the same kind of spectacle mistakes that any number of blockbusters have struggled with in recent times. At a point we should be rooting for characters, and the stakes should be at their highest, the (hugely impressive) special effects pretty much barge everyone out of the way. The film suffers heavily for it: bland wasn’t a word I expected to write in this review, but for one key stretch in the movie, it’s hard to describe Fantastic Beasts as anything else.
Furthermore, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them struggles to offset its weaker moments thanks to not having great characters to pull off the bench when needed. The joy of the Potter world was often knowing that a few snatched moments with Snape, or an injection of Professor McGonagall, could be around the corner. Yet none of the characters in this story thus far – appreciating this is film one of five – really come close to that Potter ensemble, in screen presence or relatability.
Some do fare better than others. The standouts? Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski is very good value, and Alison Sudol’s exceptional Queenie Goldstein is a real treat. The scenes the pair share both evoke the 20s setting of the movie, and the playful spirit of Rowling’s writing. They’re a lot of fun apart, an absolute joy when together. Credit too to the always-wonderful Samantha Morton, as Mary Lou, who brings a quiet, unsettling menace to her role. I’m keen too to see more time for Katherine Waterston’s Porpentia Goldstein in future films.
Without giving key moments away (and this review deliberately veers spoiler-free), it can’t be ignored that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is particularly hampered by its lack of an interesting foe. That there’s nothing that feels substantive for the protagonists to push against, and as a consequence, no real sense of threat. The film does put in place a fresh figure to attempt to rival that man that nobody is supposed to talk about. I can but charitably suggest that much work needs to be done where that fresh figure is concerned.
Still, there are clear building blocks that Fantastic Beasts is putting into place, and, after its opening burst, there continues to be sporadic moments where it all threatens to explode more into life. Furthermore, it’s quite wonderful often just to look at. Director David Yates allows his camera to slow down and linger on the glorious set design, and you can’t help but look for all the details in the windows, for instance. There’s much to admire on screen.
But conversely, it still feels like the magic is missing so far. That the ingredients seem to be here, but they’ve not gelled into a story good enough – at least not yet – to cover the first 133 minutes of screen time in this particular saga. And when any film with Harry Potter connections is notably dragging before your eyes, you can’t help but send out an owl.
The sheer craft, some of the imagination (sign me up for giggle water) and the willingness to underpin the film with themes that matter, carry it through. But this one’s at times harder work than you might be prepared for.