The following was commissioned by Culture Fly
It’s hard not to be subjective when it comes to JK Rowling’s wizarding world. It means a lot to many people. So, reviewing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a difficult task. Luckily, the film makes it any easy job. Not only is it delightful, it is one of the best, socially conscious blockbusters of the year and builds on the themes present in the Harry Potter franchise.
Taking place in the 1920s New York, Fantastic Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he runs around trying to capture the magical beasts that have escaped his briefcase. During his little jaunt, he encounters disgraced auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Then, faster than you can say quidditch, the foursome get embroiled in a dangerous situation that risks exposing the wizarding world.
Moving the action to New York and making a muggle one of the central characters allows Fantastic Beasts to explore elements only hinted at during Potter’s school years. Rowling’s script expands on her usual themes of combating bigotry and othering. America’s history and the xenophobic Donald Trump’s recent election makes Rowling’s metaphor starker. It is a perfect example of how the setting compliments the story and Fantastic Beasts is at heart an immigrant story and a coming-out tale.
The introduction of Jacob plays a two-fold role in the story. First, he acts as an audience surrogate for both those who can’t tell the difference between a werewolf and an animagus and those who can. Secondly, he reinforces the metaphor. His acceptance of magic, and Newt, Tina and Queenie’s acceptance of him, shows that fearing someone because they are different is an ignorant and horrible thing to do. Jacob is the heart of Beasts and Fogler delivers the best performance in the film, using his comic timing to good effect.
However, for a film about inclusion, the cast is quite exclusive. There are only two characters of colour — President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) who appears as a picture. The whiteness of the cast contradicts the main message and is an area the filmmakers can improve upon.
Fortunately, the assembled cast is very good. Ezra Miller struggles in his earlier scenes but he gets stronger as Credence grows. Sudol is a find as Queenie, turning the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope on its head. Waterston is solid as the smart, resourceful but foolhardy Tina. She is a flawed outsider. No wonder she is drawn to Newt.
Newt is a different type of hero. Rowling’s protagonists tend to be outsiders and Newt is her biggest outsider yet. He is socially awkward and a lonesome figure. But he is true to himself. He is the antithesis of the 200lb chiselled heroes seen in most blockbusters. Redmayne’s performance is very similar to what he’s done before and it’s a solid foundation for the future films. Newt is different to Harry and Fantastic Beasts is different to Harry Potter.
Yet, the filmmakers won’t acknowledge this. They try too hard to tether the film to what’s come before, even using the famous refrain from Hedwig’s Theme at the beginning of the film. It’s a shame they try to keep Fantastic Beastson the leash when the leash is almost snapping.
A lot of this blame lands on director David Yates’ shoulders. Here, he feels creatively spent. He leans too heavily on CGI; its overuse dampens the magic. The practical effects of the early films grounded the magic in reality. Here, the CGI makes the magic feel false. Watching the Thunderbird soar is a sight but bad CGI always outweighs good CGI and Gnarlack, the Goblin gangster voiced by Ron Perlman, looks too waxy.
Yates also struggles to handle the tonal shifts in Rowling’s script. Switching from a physical comedy moment to child abuse may work on paper but its translation needs delicacy and Yates is too rough this time round. But, credit where credit’s due, he succeeds in crafting an interesting, colourful world that is full of whimsy. The screen is always populated with something unique and it makes returning to Rowling’s wizarding world a must.