I have to admit, when I heard that they were launching a new trilogy set in the Potterverse, I was a little sceptical; studios are always on the look out for their next big cash cow, and it wasn’t hard to see this as their latest attempt to mine more gold out of the now-finished Harry Potter movies. The title didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, either; for those who might be unaware, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a small book, written for charity by J K Rowling, that’s simply an encyclopaedia of the assorted magical animals to be found in the universe, presented as an in-universe school text. It’s maybe 100 pages long. Getting a trilogy out of it seemed, well, ambitious feels like too small a word, somehow. And got smaller when it was announced that the new “trilogy” would, in fact, be five movies.
But details came out that sounded interesting (and I’m a sucker for this sort of movie anyway); that it would be a period piece, set in the late 1920’s, seemed very promising, not least because it seriously limited the possibilities for already established characters to show up, forcing the storyline to stand on its own two feet, rather than just riding the coattails of the previous films. It would be set in America, giving the audience an insight into a whole other region of the magical world that really hadn’t been touched upon before. The storyline came into focus – it would cover the misadventures of the original text’s in-universe author, Newt Scamander, to be played by the generally excellent Eddie Redmayne, as he pursued various magical beasts around New York. All in all, it sounded like it could be a lot of fun.
And, I’m rather happy to report that, for the most part, it is indeed a fun movie. Albeit something of a surprising one.
One could readily be forgiven, given the film’s rather whimsical title, that what lay ahead is a light-hearted film, following an eccentric zoologist as he chases various creatures around the place, with a few amusing US-UK cultural misunderstandings thrown in for good measure, and there are most certainly quite a number of sequences that fit that narrative, particularly those involving Newt’s scene-stealing Niffler, which most resembles some sort of marsupial mole with an unhealthy fixation on shiny objects. But, on the whole, the film steers a rather darker path than one might expect, opening with a dark wizard’s ruthless assault on a European castle and carrying on into a plot that features child cruelty and a few murders. The American wizarding council aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs either – it’s clear very quickly that the wizarding world as a whole are terrified of Grindelwald and his rampage across Europe and those in charge in the United States are taking their security deadly seriously. Like the Potter series before it, it seems that this new series is going to get much darker as it goes along.
The storyline is, to be honest, a little slight, as the movie spends maybe slightly too much time shouldering the burden of doing the world-building necessary to support the new series, but what there is is entertaining and the world-building is genuinely interesting, filling in new aspects to what’s been shown before. Redmayne makes for an appealing if unusually socially awkward lead, occasionally feeling like he might be channelling an introverted version of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor (it came as no surprise to me to find out later than Smith was a serious contender for the lead), and he’s backed up by a solid supporting cast, most notably Dan Vogler as Jacob, a hapless No-Maj* who gets drawn into Newt’s adventures and, as such, effectively serves as the audience surrogate. This can often be a thankless task for an actor, and it’s to Vogler’s credit that he pulls it off rather well. The different creatures are well-realised and the effects generally are top-notch. The script, now written by Rowling herself, is quite accomplished, with little that actually feels extraneous, although it remains to be seen if a few things may pay off in subsequent films.
On the whole, I enjoyed this movie a great deal and look forward to seeing where they go with it. If reports are to be believed, next stop, Paris…
* Okay, yeah, this whole “No-Maj” thing, which is what the American wizards use to refer to the non-magical population, the equivalent to a British wizard using “Muggle”. I have to confess, when I first heard that, I rather hated it. Really just sounded terrible. It was only after the movie when my wife (who, for the record, is actually American) admitted that, while she’d not been sure about it at first, she’d swiftly come to the conclusion that it was actually exactly the sort of phrase that her countrymen might come up with. So I’ll let them get away with it….