In honor of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them being released on Blu-Ray yesterday, I thought I’d revisit the film and review it, as well as review the Blu-Ray itself.
Out of all of the geeky fandoms that I indulge in, Batman and Harry Potter are probably my two favorite. Both have helped shaped me in innumerable ways growing up, but the boy wizard probably changed my life in more noticeable ones than the Dark Knight ever did.
J.K. Rowling’s book series about the wide-eyed student attending a school of magic at which he fit in time to save the world in-between going to his classes not only helped me get through middle school and high school myself, but was also the initial reason I looked into attending university over in the United Kingdom, and is also the reason that my wife and I met in the first place. (No joke, I met my wife years ago on a now defunct Harry Potter forum. Shout-out to anyone out there who remembers HPANA.com!) I’ve made lifelong connections because of the iconic book series, and have done things and gone places that I probably never would have experienced had they not been written, and because of all of that combined, they’ll always hold a close, special place in my heart. So when it was announced that Warner Bros. was going to revisit the wizarding world on the big screen by adapting J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter tie-in book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was excited, even though I had no initial idea about what to expect.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of prequels (as I made abundantly clear in the most recent article I published), but I wasn’t as wary seeing this film for the first time as I’ve been seeing similar movies in the past. (I’m looking directly at the Star Wars prequels right now!) And that’s for two main reasons. Firstly, J.K. Rowling is an incredible writer, and not only came up with the story for this movie, but also ended up writing the screenplay herself. Secondly, it was seemingly an indirect prequel at best, set seventy years before Harry’s story, on a different continent, starring a character who was ancillary at best to the original series. Indeed, Newt Scamander was only mentioned by name in the books as having written the Hogwarts’ textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – he never actually appeared himself!
As it turns out, I was right now to worry, because Warner Bros.’ latest foray into the wizarding world is as magical as fans of Harry Potter could have hoped for. Before I continue with my review of the film and the Blu-Ray, please be aware that past this point there might be some mild spoilers.
While Fantastic Beasts never quite hits the heights of the tightly plotted story of Harry Potter, it’s still enjoyable in its own right. I find it similar in tone and structure of J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a straightforward adventure story with a twist introduced at the end that hints at a larger, more complex mythology. As we now know, this film is intended to be the start of a new franchise consisting of five movies, so the simplicity of the plot – and make no mistake, it is simple; it’s very Pokémon-esque in a “gotta catch ‘em all type of way” – is probably due to the world building and the setting up of the chessboard that this story has to do for the four upcoming sequels. Again, very similar to the balancing act Rowling had to maintain with the first book in the Harry Potter series in order to set up her six follow-ups.
For those who don’t yet know – though you should go watch the movie before continuing this review if you don’t! – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), as he journeys from England to America in 1926 in order to set free a magnificent thunderbird that he rescued back into its natural habitat of Arizona. Due to a mishap in New York, however, his magical briefcase full of a variety of magical creatures gets swapped with no-maj (the American word for “muggle”, or “non-magical person”) Jacob Kowalski’s (Dan Folger) and is accidentally open, setting a a few of the strange animals within it loose on Manhattan. Newt and Jacob team-up and form an alliance with two MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America – the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) employees, sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), to track down and recapture the creatures before they inadvertently expose the magical community to the no-maj world at large. It’s a task that’s complicated by the fact that the wizarding world is already at risk of being exposed via two different fronts. The first, a group called “The Second-Salemers”, an organization run by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a narrow minded no-maj, and her troubled, adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller); the second, the increasing, worldly threat of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), that the President of MACUSA, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and her Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), are trying to keep out of the country.
Though a very straightforward film, it’s also a very crowded film, consisting of six different plotlines of varying importance that prevents a flow that is one-hundred percent smooth. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable movie and one that is slightly more adult than the original Harry Potter series, a natural side-effect that’s born out of the fact there are no children characters in this story. I would say the level of darkness is probably similar to the tone set by the middle Harry Potter books, just when the protagonists of that series found themselves on the cusp of adulthood. In fact, there are a few genuinely frightening scenes in this movie that I would hazard a guess might actually be slightly intense for younger viewers.
That’s not to say it’s not a movie for kids, because children will absolutely love it – the visuals are stunning, and the designs of the multiple magical creatures are absolutely breathtaking and adorable. I’d go so far as to say the aesthetic of the film overall is one of its greatest strengths. Through the combination of impressive, enormous sets and digital effects, the filmmakers managed to perfectly recreate 1920’s New York, which the costume department managed to compliment by reproducing clothing indicative of the time period, even in the more fantastically “out there” outfits worn by our magical heroes, which they still managed to find a way to successfully ground in reality. It’s a gorgeous looking film overall.
Its other greatest strength is the strong cast that David Yates, David Heyman, and J.K. Rowling assembled to play these characters. The lingering Harry Potter nostalgia and the Rowling brand could have only carried this movie so far – it’s the cast who truly made the film a success. Redmayne is charming in the lead role of the twitchy, socially awkward Newt Scamander, and is such a great actor that he manages to convince the audience that he’s truly in love with the CGI animals running around the screen. Folger and Sudol, meanwhile, instill the film with its emotional core as Jacob and Queenie, whose innocent romance at the center of the story is surprisingly sweet, endearing, and real, providing the movie with its heart. Another standout is Farrell’s Percival Graves, who manages to provide the film with a very unnerving, menacing undertone. And then, of course, there are the magical creatures themselves, who – though completely CGI – are characters in their own right, with different quirks and personalities that are equally amusing and heartwarming. Though I can’t single each and every cast member out, they’re all perfectly portrayed by the performers playing them.
As a fan of the original Harry Potter series, what I enjoyed the most about this movie is learning about the differences between English and American wizarding culture. I know it’s geeky, but I found it absolutely fascinating how different magical society is on either side of the ocean. True to form, J.K. Rowling makes parallels between the wizarding world and the non-wizarding world as a way to comment on certain aspects about society. From something as simple as American wizards using the term “no-maj” instead of “muggle” (a jab at how Americans use different words for certain things than the British do), to unique laws put in place by MACUSA – such as needing permits to carry wands (a clear reference to American gun permits), forbidding marriage between wizards and no-majs (commentary on a portion of America’s opposition to gay marriage), and the fact that the organization still allows the death penalty (commentary on a portion of America’s continued use of the death penalty) – all of these little equivalences Rowling makes between our real world, and her fictional one only helps to make the latter feel more three-dimensional and authentic.
The most surprising thing about this movie in my eyes is just how many references and connections to the original Harry Potter series there actually are, making it more of a direct prequel than I had anticipated. From the mention of the names Albus Dumbledore and Lestrange, to the appearance of Gellert Grindelwald and the appearance of the Deathly Hallows symbol, it’s clear that as the next four films play out, the story is going to end up more tied to the original series’ mythology than anybody could have anticipated prior to the release of this film. This has all been confirmed by the filmmakers who have admitted as much, and have said that Dumbledore himself will not only appear in the sequel, but play a major part.
As fans already know, Dumbledore’s legendary reputation stems, in large part, from the fact that he eventually defeats the dark wizard Grindelwald, so it makes sense that the future Hogwarts’ Headmaster will be showing up. Though this will bring the Fantastic Beasts series even closer to direct prequel territory than I’m comfortable with, I’m confident that if anybody can write a satisfying prequel that I actually enjoy, it’s J.K. Rowling. And I’m curious to see how the characters of Newt, Jacob, Tina, and Queenie end up factoring into the already established events that we know ends up occurring between Dumbledore and Grindelwald.
If it wasn’t already clear, I love the film overall, and I highly recommend it to everyone – especially if you are a fan of the original Harry Potter series.
Yesterday, during my lunch break at work, I picked up a copy of the 4K Ultra HD-Blu-Ray-Digital combo pack Steelbook edition of the film at Best Buy. I always tend to buy Steelbook editions of movies (if they have such editions – most movies don’t) due to the durability of the Blu-Ray case, and the unique, variant cover art that’s printed upon the case. The Steelbook for Fantastic Beasts sports a fantastic design, with the front cover showcasing Newt’s open briefcase laying open in a pile of gold and his pet Niffler crouched down beside it, clutching a pocket watch, while the back cover features Newt himself running up a flight of stone steps in New York City, clutching his briefcase. It’s a beautiful piece to add to my collection of Blu-Rays, and makes me hope that the original eight Harry Potter films will one day be given Steelbook re-releases.
As for the Blu-Ray itself, the transfer is as perfect as expected, and the movie looks just as beautiful fitted for the small screen as it did for the big screen. It also contains a number of Special Features, including:
- “Before Harry Potter: A New Era of Magic Begins!” – A short documentary in which J.K. Rowling, David Yates, and David Heyman talk about returning to the wizarding world for this new film series.
- “Character Featurettes” on “The Magizoologist”, “The Goldstein Sisters”, “The New Salemers”, “The No-Maj Baker”, and “The President and the Auror”, in which the cast and crew discuss the creation and development of their characters.
- “Creature Featurettes” including a behind-the-scenes video entitled “Meet the Fantastic Beasts”, as well as individual features on “Bowtruckle”, “Demiguise”, “Erumpent”, “Niffler”, “Occamy”, and “Thunderbird”. Of all of the special features, the individual creature ones were definitely my favorite, as they showcased the amazing mix of acting, puppetry, practical effects, and CGI used to bring them to life on set.
- “Design”, which includes a 360-degree video entitled “Shaping the World of Fantastic Beasts”, and 360-degree tours of “New York City”, “MACUSA”, “Newt’s Magical Case”, “The Shaw Banquet”, and “The Blind Pig”. These were pretty cool features that allow viewers to truly explore the intricate detail in all of the stunning sets created for this film.
- “Deleted Scenes” – Pretty self-explanatory, the Blu-Ray includes eleven deleted scenes in total, which were pretty interesting. My two favorite were one that shed some more light on Jacob’s backstory (he was engaged until he couldn’t get his bakery loan!), and one fun one in which Tina and Queenie sing the Ilvermorny (the American equivalent of Hogwarts) school song.
All together, there are probably about two hours’ worth of Special Features when all of the above are combined. When coupled with the film itself and the packaging – even if you decide not to go for the Steelbook, the mass produced cover art is pretty cool as well – I’d highly recommend anyone that likes the film to pick up the Blu-Ray. Even if you haven’t yet seen the movie, I’d recommend picking it up if you like the original Harry Potter series, because chances are you’ll fall in love with this movie as well.
Did Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them live up to your expectations? Are you excited for four more return trips to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in the coming years? Will you be adding this Blu-Ray to your collection? Let me know in the comments below!