Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them began life as a school textbook of the same name in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the institution for magicians in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga. In 2001 Rowling released this textbook as a fleshed-out spin-off encyclopedia of magical creatures, with a view to raising money for Comic Relief, and the first film, adapted from this rather slim compilation, came out this week in cinemas worldwide.
On the face of it, it was always going to be a stretch to extract one cogent plotline out of this almanac – let alone five (Rowling has promised a further four sequels). Having seen this first instalment, my doubts are not assuaged. Although it pains me to say it, perhaps even someone with the imagination of Rowling has spread herself a little too thin with this latest venture.
Eddie Redmayne – who surely, had he been a little more successful at the time, would have been a Weasley in the Harry Potter films – plays Newt Scamander, a British magizoologist who stops off in New York City en route to Arizona, accidentally setting free a striking array of magical creatures that run amok in the metropolis. Needless to say, hilarity and chaos ensue.
In the wake of my intense disappointment with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (I won’t start, I promise), Fantastic Beasts certainly rekindled the glee that first overwhelmed me when reading Rowling’s books as a child. Where Cursed Child felt more laboured and forced in its revisiting of our favourite Potter characters than some fan-fic, Fantastic Beasts heralds a new chapter for the franchise.
This freshness comes partly in the figure of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a New Yorker who works at a can factory but who dreams of one day owning his own bakery. He is a charismatic no-maj (the American term for our ‘muggle’), whisked along with Newt and the gang after being caught up in his hunt for the runaway beasts.
His desperate attempts to fit in with magical folk are a joy to behold (‘I love house elves. My uncle is a house elf’, he says to one bemused elf-barman), and it was great to see a ‘normal’ human being given centre stage in the Potterverse – a welcome addition for cinema viewers who are not seasoned fans of the saga. Fogler has perfected a specific look of bemusement, awe and deference to magical beings thrice his size, an expression that will surely serve him well in sequels to come.
Redmayne’s bumbling, English charm worked wonders in the New York setting, but his facial gestures felt slightly awkward in parts and I was bemused by his insistence on cocking his head to one side at all times. He’s almost as odd as his creatures, with a gait that is almost clown-like.
On a wider level, David Yates (also the director of the last four Potter films) goes through the motions a little, giving us chase scene after chase scene followed by reaction shots of Jacob, Queenie, and Tina as they stand flabbergasted before yet another creature. It reminded me of what Maggie Smith said about Harry Potter: “Alan Rickman and I ran out of reaction shots. We couldn’t think what sort of faces we would pull. I remember him saying he’d got up to about three hundred and sixty something and there weren’t any left.” Yates’ cinematography could get tiresomely familiar after the second Fantastic Beasts entry.
At times the dialogue did feel rather stilted, especially when veering into political and social themes. Politics in Harry Potter is a fascinating topic for debate, but Fantastic Beasts made its point with the subtlety of a hand grenade. This is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) on magical law: “who does this protect? Us? Or them?” And here Newt on the dangers faced by his beasts: “the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” Deep.
I’m an obsessive Potterhead, and I can safely say that the Harry Potter franchise has taken more of my hard-earned money than any other cultural phenomenon. And yet I was left frustrated by this attempt to churn out ever more wizards and fantastic beasts. At best the film provides an unchallenging, passable side-note, and at worst it tarnishes the magic of the originals. It’s half-decent, but mediocrity oughtn’t be enough.
I’m reminded of one of Rowling’s lines, so cherished by the HP fandom: “Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.” And yet, Fantastic Beasts, lacking the warmth and comeliness of the Potter saga, fails to engulf you within its world.
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is now showing at the Gala cinema.
Photograph: Gage Skidmore