Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Given the unmitigated success of the Harry Potter franchise as a series of books and films, it was almost a certainty that there would be some kind of spin-off or continuation of the stories being told in the wizarding world or the affectionately titled “Potterverse.”  In particular, studios like Warner Bros. are never keen on completely disposing of tentpole movies and established franchises that have built-in audiences.  Especially in a time now when original content is harder to market than ever, it’s beneficial to have an intellectual property that has made your studio billions of dollars.  It’s therefore no surprise that Warner Bros. has returned to J.K. Rowling and the Potterverse for a film adaptation of Harry’s Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  And not just an adaptation, the plan is for five films to be made loosely based on this spin-off book that Rowling wrote in 2001.  Based on the first film, it appears that there may be just enough of its own magic to sustain itself going forward without relying too much on the Harry Potter “brand.”

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The film takes place in 1926, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist is disembarking from a ship in the harbor of New York City with a suspicious suitcase that keeps unlocking itself.  As he is walking through the city, distracted by a woman speaking out that dark forces are at work in the city, his suitcase unlocks and a Niffler escapes from it and begins snatching up jewelry and valuable possessions left and right.  As Newt attempts to get the Niffler back, he runs into a No-Maj (Non-magical human, the American name for Muggles) named Jacob Kowalski, an aspiring baker seeking a bank loan.  Newt’s attempt to reign in the Niffler also draws the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted Auror who arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard in the city limits and for being in possession of several magical creatures inside his suitcase.  His interaction with Jacob led to a switching of their suitcases, and Newt, Tina, and Jacob, along with the help of Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) end up having to scour New York City looking for the creatures that escaped while Newt’s suitcase was at Jacob apartment.  At the same time, the head of the Aurors, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), is investigating a dark presence that is wreaking havoc the city, an Obscurus, that he believes is manifested from an orphan child that is under the care of the woman who was speaking out about dark forces and witches, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton).  Her New Salem Philanthropic Society, also known as “the Second-Salemers,” is seeking to expose and kill witched and wizards, with the help of her adopted son, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).  All of this takes place with the backdrop of Gellert Grindewald sowing seeds of dissent and putting the wizarding world on edge.

I never read the “false document” book release of Fantastic Beasts that Rowling put out in 2001, though I was generally aware of its existence.  Creating a franchise with it as the launching pad is a suitable new angle into this world, especially as there are only sketches of background plot associated with it.  It frees up Rowling, who has written this screenplay and will write the future ones, and the films in a way that the Harry Potter franchise could never be, because it had to remain faithful to the books as its source material.  With the barest of bare bones of backstory already established in the Harry Potter books, Rowling can really explore the studio space with these prequels and allows Fantastic Beasts to be its own thing and stand on its own.

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David Yates, who directed the last half of the Harry Potter films, returns as director here.  Having Rowling as the writer and Yates as the director gives the film a certain level of continuity with the Potter films, visually and tonally.  They also sprinkle in a few nods to the Potter stories as well, but not too many.  As a first-time screenwriter, Rowling makes a good transition, which is to be expected, telling a story that is not as intricate but just as interwoven as some of her books.  Everything fits together nicely.  Also, whereas each Harry Potter story unfolded over the course of a school year, this film takes places over a few days, a nice change of pace.  I wonder if that will be the case for all of the films.

The film features a pretty strong cast.  Eddie Redmayne seems like a perfect fit in this world.  His Newt Scamander is a bit too eccentric at times for my liking at times, but it is a charming performance, if also a bit silly at times, in particular when he has to enact a mating ritual with rhinoceros-like creature in order to get it back in his magical case.  It’s a large cast, but two that stood out to me in particular were Dan Fogler as Jacob and Alison Sudol as Queenie.  Fogler is an actor that really grated on me in the first movie I ever saw him in (Balls of Fury, a film so bad I couldn’t even finish it), and it left a lasting impression with me.  He is an actor I clearly misjudged, because I did not think he was capable of playing a well-rounded person like Jacob, a likeable everyman who gets caught up into the world that was previously unknown to him.  Sudol, as Queenie, is a smaller supporting role, but her being charmed and smitten with Jacob, a No-Maj, is surprising and endearing.  She has more than a bit of Marilyn Monroe in her character, talking in an airy, breathless voice.

The creatures, all CGI work, look great, and hunting for them allows Rowling a chance to show her creativity both in how these magical creatures behave and how Newt Scamander goes about catching them.  Almost all of these creatures also seem to have distinct personalities of their own too; I know the niffler is supposed to be there mostly for comic relief, but I found the creature slightly annoying.

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While film is enjoyable overall, there are a few aspects which hold it back a bit.  I mentioned that Newt is a bit eccentric, but he also a little too withholding of details at times when a little more detail would be helpful to the people around him.  The governing bodies of the wizarding world in Harry Potter always bothered me, and here it is no different.  Maybe it is the bureaucracy of it all, or the rigidness of the people in power, here embodied by President Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) just does not sit well with me.  It is also the one aspect of the film that feels the most like the Harry Potter stories and how the Ministry is depicted there.  Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barebone raises the potential for the wizarding world to be exposed.  The “Second Salemers” moniker is a little too on the nose, and the propaganda they spread looks and feels slightly out of place in 1920 New York City.  Connected to that is a newspaper man played by Jon Voight who has two sons, one a senator and one who is interested in Barebone’s words.  Their involvement is probably the weakest part of the plot, as any potential threat they pose of exposing the wizarding world is undermined a bit by the ability to use the magic trump card and make the threat disappear.  It’s also unclear why the second son was so invested in Barebone’s message.  Lastly, some of the story is dedicated to why Newt Scamander has all of these exotic magical creatures with him and quite a few of them are given moments to be displayed, but perhaps a bit more backstory about why Newt has a different appreciation for them than the majority of the wizarding world does would have been a bit more illuminating and pertinent to the title of the film.

Still, the real accomplishment of this film is that it launches a new franchise and establishes brand new characters for the audience without having to replicate too many of the character archetypes that were in the Harry Potter stories.  These characters are not stand-ins for Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Dumbledore, Snape, et al.  They are seeking to tell the story of these characters in this time period, within the greater context of the future story that is to come that has already been established.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does not try to replicate everything that made the Harry Potter franchise work.  It is dancing to the beat of its own drum.  It has its own magic to work with.  While this first entry may be just a notch below most of the Harry Potter films, the possibility of what they can do going forward is promising given that they have very few constraints upon them.  It will be interesting to see where this goes.

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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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