Jazz Age Magic: Fantastic Beasts

I’ll admit that I was sceptical about this film. When it was announced, I thought it was a shameless bid to milk more money out of the Harry Potter cash-cow, an attempt to extend a franchise beyond its logical expiry date. (And, let’s be honest – it is.) Additionally, the setting of the film – New York – reeked of an effort to make profit by appealing to an US audience, to Americanise a franchise that has always been intrinsically British. (And if you need a reminder of how these markets are so different, remember that The Philosopher’s Stone was published in the US as The Sorcerer’s Stone, because it was assumed that American readers were actively deterred by the implication of philosophy. If I was American, I would be insulted.) Despite my abject cynicism, part of me was intrigued: would the franchise survive beyond the winning formula of British boarding school + magic? Could such a big franchise still function as a spin-off, when so many of the core elements – Harry, Hogwarts, Voldemort – would be absent? How could the wizarding world be translated into an American setting? Most importantly, would the combination of J.K. Rowling (making her screenwriting debut) and director David Yates be enough to recapture the magic?

It turns out my scepticism was entirely unjustified – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is amazing. Rowling’s imagination is in overdrive throughout the entire film, giving us a dazzling carnival of magic that feels both familiar and new at the same time. It’s the setting that really stands out – Jazz Age New York rejuvenates the franchise, lending its frantic energy and illicit hedonism to a wizarding world in turmoil. Any concern that the franchise has run out of things to offer is quickly forgotten.

fantastic-beasts-poster

The film is set in 1926. British wizard Newt Scamander has arrived in New York with a briefcase full of magical creatures. When they escape, he must recapture them whilst simultaneously evading magical law enforcement. Meanwhile, the American wizarding community is in a period of turmoil. The dark wizard Grindelwald has been terrorising Europe, leading to concerns about outright war between wizards and Muggles. And a mysterious destructive force has been unleashed on New York, which threatens to expose the wizarding community. What begins as a fairly simple plot is revealed to have unexpected sophistication, even rivalling the complexity of the Harry Potter novels. It’s the sort of film that rewards multiple viewings. And the ending reminds us how adept Rowling is at tying seemingly disparate plot threads into a coherent whole.

The film benefits from a superb cast. Eddie Redmayne is eccentric and introverted as Newt Scamander, always avoiding eye contact with his fellow characters, the sort of person who gravitates to animals because he understands them better than he understands people. Newt is the perfect bridge between the Harry Potter series and Fantastic Beasts. He is a recognisable name to fans of the books, a graduate of Hogwarts, and a friend to Dumbledore – these credentials alone lend him familiarity. Dan Fogler steals the show as Jacob Kowalski. He is a superb comedic actor, a No-Maj (American Muggle) who is the audience’s guide to this strange place, both baffled and awed by the world of magic. But he’s not just the comedy relief – his subplot is poignant and grounded, reminding us what happens when mere mortals encounter magical beings. Katherine Waterston is wonderful as Tina Goldstein, a disgraced former Auror who was demoted for her pursuit of justice. Alison Sudol is breathy and bubbly as Tina’s sister Queenie, a gifted Legilimens who seems like she’s just returned from a party at Gatsby’s mansion. If these characters are the new versions of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, then the Fantastic Beasts series is in good hands.

Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander.
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander.

Even the supporting characters demonstrate the complexity that defines Rowling’s work. Colin Farrell brings a brooding gravitas to Graves, a high-ranking Auror who is tasked with tracking down Newt. The most unsettling performance in the entire film is Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barebone, the sinister leader of the Second-Salemers, who seeks to expose and kill witches. Her scenes are tense and cruel – the film’s darkest moments are of the abuse that she inflicts on her adopted children. Ezra Miller is suitably troubled as Credence, the eldest of these children, who makes a Faustian deal to escape the abuse of his mother.

Colin Farrell as Graves.
Colin Farrell as Graves.

Rowling’s imagination is on full display in this film. We are reminded, once again, that her worldbuilding skills easily rank her amongst the best fantasy writers on the planet. Her wizarding world smoothly translates into an American setting. It achieves the perfect balance between familiarity and new material – enough to make us recognize Rowling’s universe, but giving us something new at the same time. In the same way that many of the institutions and settings in the Harry Potter series had real-world analogues, Rowling doesn’t shy away from embracing the Jazz Age setting. Part of the joy of the film is experiencing the magical version of a speakeasy, or drawing parallels between prohibition and restrictions in the use of magic. Visually, the costumes and setting – straight out of The Great Gatsby – are just as sumptuous as the film’s magical elements.

fantastic-beasts-speakeasy
A wizarding version of a speakeasy.

David Yates may be the best thing that has happened to the film franchise. It was under his direction that wand duels in the last four Harry Potter films became hyper-kinetic action sequences, rather than teenagers waving sticks and chanting incantations. The action is even better in Fantastic Beasts – we have moved beyond the schoolyard into the world of adults. Where the main characters in the Harry Potter series were (understandably) concerned with learning spells, the characters in Fantastic Beasts are already adept at magic; they duel with a ruthlessness and speed that we’ve only glimpsed in previous films. The numerous creatures are visually stunning, and each plays an important role in the plot, rather than just being a feast for the eyes.

The pesky Niffler is one of the comedic highlights of the film.
The pesky Niffler is one of the comedic highlights of the film.

With so much going on, the film does suffer from trying to do too much at once. The pacing of the film is a bit uneven. It is slow for the first thirty minutes, as Rowling patiently establishes her characters, sets the plot in motion, and provides the obligatory exposition. Even when the creatures escape and unleash mayhem across the city, some of the scenes of Newt recapturing them are unnecessarily drawn out, especially in the second half of the film, when the plot with Graves and the Second-Salemers has evolved beyond Newt’s escaped creatures.

Fantastic Beasts ties into the established Harry Potter timeline quite nicely. There are numerous references to familiar names and events, and by the end of the film, when the twist has been revealed, the direction of the Fantastic Beasts series becomes clear. It will be great to see how events unfold in future films. Newt is the perfect protagonist for this series – the Sir David Attenborough of the wizarding world.

One of the things I realised while watching the film was that the Harry Potter novels have become sacred texts in my mind – any attempt to expand on them would be met with wary resistance. But Fantastic Beasts demonstrates the versatility of the franchise, laying my concerns to rest. It is ripe for expansion beyond the British boarding school + magic formula. Even without the familiar faces and locations that defined the books, Rowling’s world has enough depth and momentum to survive – even thrive – as a spin-off series. The Harry Potter novels may have laid the foundation for this world, but now we are seeing it expand into a fully-fledged universe.

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