By: Muneeb Arshid
Harry Potter is back!!
Well, we’re back in that universe, that’s for sure. Written by J.K. Rowling, we see ourselves back in the magical world that we all grew to love. Albeit this is 70 years prior to Harry Potter ever leaving his mark on the magical world. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the prequel following the adventures of Newt Scamander as he makes his way to the US in the 1920s.
Yes, this is the introduction of the magical world as was imagined on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. J.K. Rowling has once again created a world which “slightly” immerses the audience in the magical world. Now, I say “slightly” slightly facetiously but there may be some truth to that. The audience that was so enamored by the Harry Potter universe in the last decade, are not necessarily the same audience that will be going to the theatres for this series. I am of the generation that grew up with the cast of Harry Potter, read all the books, watched and rewatched all the movies which reminds me, I probably should watch the films again sometime soon. So, for me, having another film in the universe made me extremely giddy and excited for the movie. Did this movie have a similar effect on me like its predecessors? Let’s find out!
Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne in a performance that will not net him a third straight Oscar nomination this year, is a magical zoologist traveling the world and saving magical creatures that have been receiving a bad rep from the Magical Community. He makes his way to New York for a series of “business things”. With him is the suitcase that throws up several surprises, not just for him but for the slightly paranoid New Yorkers as well. While Scamander runs around New York looking for his lost creatures, a far more nefarious plot is developing on the streets of New York, an issue that The Magical Congress of America is having major problems dealing with.
Newt runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a “no-mag” (which is a muggle, for all you Harry Potter fans), who ends up becoming quite central to the plot. Newt stumbles and eventually relies on the help of Kowalski in rounding up the eventual missing creatures on the streets of New York. Newt also uses the help of sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the former of which, who works for the Congress as an Auror and who tries to arrest Newt initially but eventually works out that Newt actually does require more assistance, possibly from those that should be helping him in the first place.
The darker tone of the film focuses on an invisible “beast” ripping through the streets of New York which Mr. Graves (Colin Farrell) of The Magical Congress is investigating. Graves suspects that members of the Barebone family may be involved as they seem very suspicious in churning anti-magical sentiments on the streets of New York. The matriarch of the family, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is the public figure who is best known for the embellishment of the sentiment. However, Graves’ focus is on the son, Credence (Ezra Miller) who is a very mysterious character and someone who Graves uses for information which eventually backfires in Graves’ face.
Graves himself is a very suspicious man. A high-ranking member of The Magical Congress with his perfect haircut and perfectly flowing robes (almost too perfectly it seems!), he comes across as being too suave for his own good. Of course, later in the film, his true “identity” is revealed (not for the better, solely due to the cameo appearance of a certain actor) but it isn’t necessarily the biggest surprise of the film. It’s something that just the appearance of his character makes you second guess his intentions the entire time.
Now, a lot of the criticism for the film is going to be glossed over because of the nostalgia of being back in the universe. That iconic opening credit theme song sets the tone right off the bat, signaling a big “And we’re back”. But, are we though? Fantastic Beasts is definitely trying to be much darker in tone than some of the Harry Potter films, especially the first two. The problem is, that because the film is essentially an origin story of several new characters, there is a lot of balancing going on with the different aspects of the plot. The best parts of the film are definitely the darker parts focusing on the streets of New York and the juggling act that The Congress is trying to play. There is a reminiscence of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the films that followed in the past decade where the entire series shifted from the happy-go-lucky first two movies to the introduction of dementors and a visibly darker tone to the films by Alfonso Cuarón and which was maintained by David Yates in the final films.
The dark bits are really good in this film. The lighter bits, on the other hand, are not! For the entire first hour of the film, director David Yates focuses on introducing Newt and his “Fantastic Beasts” in a certain “Narnia-esque” style, which feels as if there is an overemphasis on those introductions. What makes it worse is that Yates still introduces the actual plotline revolving around the mysterious “gas-like” destruction happening in New York but feels very shoehorned in. It’s as if Yates was compelled to include the darker moments of the film to ensure that people were not forgetting that there was an actual plot to the film and not just a monster-finding trek. So, there are massive pacing issues because of this, resulting in sequences where the “actual” plotline will show up every 20 minutes or so, just to show that “yes, we haven’t forgotten about the plot just yet”.
Other than the plot, the other aspect that is most memorable about the Harry Potter universe are the characters and their interactions. The first thing people will always talk about are the relationship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione but also their interactions with their teachers and other students. The introductions to all of the new characters here are also very important and each has their own unique characteristics that set them apart much like the case in the predecessor series. However, there are no parallels between the series in terms of characters. Rowling has made sure that the characters here don’t resemble any character aspects from the prior series which is a good thing. A lot of times with prequel series, audiences tend to look for those character similarities that connect the series together and that doesn’t exist here.
Newt is wonderfully played by Redmayne, in a role that once again suits Redmayne where he can method act to perfection that oddity about being uncomfortable in the shoes of another character. His interactions with people in general, are wonderful to see as his emoting, or lack thereof, really comes through in the way of showing that he is very uncomfortable talking to other people and would much rather be in the company of his creatures. Around Newt, the supporting cast is for the most part quite strong, with stand-out performances by Farrell, Ezra Miller, and Samantha Morton who make the darker sequences of the film that much more enjoyable to watch. The relationship between Kowalski and Newt as well as the very enjoyable relationship between Kowalski and Queenie are absolutely wonderful. The former work together in a sense of camaraderie after being forced to rely on each other’s interests. While Kowalski and Queenie (who is accomplished in Legillimency (mind reading)) make for a very fun character arc between the two, one that toes that line between romance and playfulness very well.
If there was a character that didn’t necessarily work for me, it was the character of Tina. Initially, she spies Newt and brings him into The Congress, vying to regain her position among the elite of the Magical community. The two eventually have to work together, with a certain relationship being built along the way. However, it was Tina’s character that felt dull and someone who I could not engage with the entire time. I wouldn’t blame Katherine Waterston here, more the script and not building her character as efficiently as the rest.
The score has already been mentioned but once again, the film is introduced with that iconic opening theme that we have become so used to in the past 15 years. But, the similarities stop right there, because composer James Newton Howard has created a completely new score for this film that keeps the music in the realm of the Harry Potter universe but also taking into account that the film is set during the roaring 20s. However, there isn’t anything special about the cinematography in this film. There are not many transitions between the Muggle world and the Magical world that make it look cool a la the first time we go through Platform 9 3/4. The cinematography is serviceable but with a film like Doctor Strange portraying magic in a unique way, it doesn’t hit the mark here.
There are definitely issues with the film, namely with the plot and some of the characters. But, is it a bad film? Most definitely not. As the opening figures from the box office roll in for this weekend, the numbers are placing this film towards the latter end of the Harry Potter universe. This goes to show that the market is still there for this series, but is it only the same generation of audience that went and watched the Harry Potter films or has the newer generation (who did not grow up with this), caught on with the act as well? We will definitely find out, as Warner Brothers are planning five total films in this series. Time will tell whether it can burst out on its own, or will it go stagnant and eventually dissipate (the latter is where I’m leaning thus far).
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them receives a respectable grade of C+ (7.0/10) from TFL.