Restarting the Wizarding World with a prequel set some seventy years prior to the Harry Potter series might seem like a gamble. But with author J.K. Rowling assuming script duties and five-time Potter director David Yates returning to the helm, does Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them deliver? Let’s take a look.
Academy Award Winner Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, the Hogwarts exile who will eventually author a compendium of magical creatures and pioneer the discipline of magizoologist. But underneath that studious and seemingly absent minded demeanor, Scamander is a compassionate. Indeed, his true business in the United States is an errand of mercy. Unfortunately, Newt gets off the steamer from England and immediately finds himself in a deep mess as some of his creatures escape.
Visually, the film maintains a continuity with the Wizarding World director Yates inherited from directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell. Simultaneous grounded and unreal; the de-saturated color palette, digital set extensions and costume design offer enough a storybook look for the fantastic to become credible. It also makes the completely CGI creatures in Newt’s suitcase blend more seamlessly into the live action photography.
Which is great as Newt’s quest to find his beloved creatures takes up most of the film’s runtime. He’s eventually joined by ex-Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the No-Maj would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While the foursome is composed of adults, they capture some of the childlike qualities fondly remembered from the early Potter films. Fogler, in particular, embodies that as the first major Muggle character in Rowling’s Wizarding World. In discovering magic, his character literally wakes up to new possibilities; including a sweet, but chaste romance with Queenie.
One would be tempted to make Kowalski the central character, but the film lives or dies by Newt Scamander and it is hard to think of anyone else in the role except Eddie Redmayne – well, maybe Matt Smith. Scamander has a lot of the Eleventh Doctor about him, but Redmayne imbues what could be an Time Lord impression with pocketfuls of of his own irresistible charm.
Katherine Waterston could also easily lead the picture. As Tina, she’s both confident and kind of a mess; full of heart and instinct, but caught up by her passions. This dedication leads her to lose her job and follow Newt around to prove he’s unleashed a menace in New York. Eventually, the two find common ground and their friendship becomes one of the best aspects of the film.
Of course, no Potter film is without its flaws and in Fantastic Beasts case, its greatest weakness is the presumed call-forwards to potential sequels. The film begins with an attempt to establish a new Voldemort: the dark wizard Grindelwald. The character disappears for much of the film, but his presence is felt as tensions between the Wizarding World and the No-Maj escalate. We eventually learn via Colin Farrell’s admirable attempt to anchor this storyline that Grindelwald wants war to break out between the two factions. Sadly, it is so disconnected from the true charm of the film that when Scamander and company finally become part of the Grindelwald plot, the movie already feels like it has ended.
Oddly enough, Fantastic Beasts shares this flaw with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Like the Potter series, one presumes Warner Bros. Home Video will eventually release an Ultimate Edition of the film. Consequently, this Blu-ray release feels light on bonus features. Much of it is built from Electronic Press Kit footage, but offers a few interesting tidbits about the thinking behind the movie: including how the fashions underscore the main four characters.
The most interesting featurette is Before Harry Potter: A New of Magic Begins!, a brief, but interesting look into how producer David Heyman got the band back together for the film. Rowling reveals that while she wanted to write the script, she hashed it out with Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves. Yates also reveals his own trepidation in returning to the Wizarding World and why he ultimately decided to return. The main four cast members also recollect meeting each other and Rowling for the first time. They maintain much of the chemistry they have as characters and it would be interesting to learn more about their experiences making the film in greater detail.
Other featurettes look at some of the minor characters, creature design and creating a Magic-infused 1920s New York. The short segment on realizing the Bowtruckle via puppetry and CGI is definitely worth a look.
There is also a selection of deleted scenes, revealing extra shades to the characters: including Kowalski’s dismay as his No-Maj fiancée leaves him. Other clips present scenes in the film taking place in different locations or extended moments from the set pieces. On moment absolutely missing from the final film is the Goldstein sisters singing the Ilvermorny school song.
The Bottom Line
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a very charming extension of the Potter brand. While its attempt to set-up sequels feels forced, the four main characters establish themselves as a group worth visiting again and again. The special features have polish, but feel too much like advertising to offer a real in-depth look at the first in what will be a long line of Wizarding World films.