The universe of Harry Potter is one that keeps unfolding, graciously, as one of our generation’s seminal fantasy epics is lucky enough to have its author still very active in crafting its universe. So ripe with world-building creativity, J.K. Rowling had even supplemented the original series with a particular indexing of the magical creatures of the “Potterverse” (as it is more nerdily known): Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Fantastic Beasts, as it is in its literary form, is more of a prop: filled with a collection of anecdotes regarding the creatures, spackled about with bits of notes from Harry, Hermione, and Ron, is more of a way to further envelope the reader into the Potterverse, making the reader feel like a student themselves. While this is the kind of world-building that brought Harry Potter to the forefront of fiction for so many years, it has also inspired this year’s most bombastic fantasy production in director David Yates’ vision of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film that is ultimately an incredible visual adventure that is acted superbly, though it is dampened by a sometimes clunky script.
David Yates (the director behind the last four movies of the Harry Potter series) and J.K. Rowling (in her first outing as a screenwriter), really manages to make this movie stand out from the previous Potterverse films by providing uniquely dark characters in the very different setting of America around the 1920s (quite a few decades before Harry Potter’s story begins). The scenery is much darker than fans of the series will probably expect, however a great deal of the whimsical nature has been retained. When it comes to the plot, the audience is provided a uniquely modern take on the usual moral tales of Harry Potter, as American sorcerers face a distinctly antagonistic relationship with, as they call them, “no-majs”, one that has its roots in the uniquely American lore of witch-hunts. As such, we have what comes across as a truly “adult” Potterverse film, one that allows fans to indulge in the whimsical magic that delighted them as children while being engaged in a unique and almost political look at the sociality of this new setting.
However, while the plot is unique in structure and design, its execution through writing leaves a bit to be desired. As J.K. Rowling’s first attempt at screenwriting (albeit with assistance from the director and producers) it is an admirable one, but quite a lofty attempt for something she has so little experience with, and it does show in cracks throughout the movie. For one, we have a completely different hero from Harry Potter in “Newt Scamander” in both temperament and role; however, very little characterization is given to him aside from Eddie Redmayne’s incredible ability to portray emotion physically (which is, quite frankly, necessary as the dialogue doesn’t parse out much emotion at all). Another setback to the enjoyment of this movie would be the clunkiness of the events as they lay out. Our intrepid heroes find themselves in one troublesome situation after another, leading them by a sort of deus ex machina to their goal, a journey that ultimately is not half as satisfying as any of the epic expeditions filled with growth and meaning that are each of the Harry Potter movies. In fact, this even contributes to the general sense that the viewer has been dropped unceremoniously into the middle of a story, with no reference as to who the characters are and a series of teases and mentions that seem only there to set up a sequel.
While a lack of enjoyment can be gleaned from these issues, they are ultimately covered up and saved by, as has been referenced, the utterly superb acting. Eddie Redmayne as “Newt Scamander” is an absolute treat: disheveled, knowledgeable, and in a way neurotic, he is a very different kind of hero who is very intriguing. Redmayne’s ability to portray all his unique vocal and physical quirks to such a degree really makes Newt come alive in the film. His female lead and perhaps-perhaps-not love interest is played by Katherine Wilson, who inhabits another character full of neuroses, though a bit different than Newt’s in her portrayal of “Tina Goldstein”, a former magical detective down on her confidence due to a demotion. Redmayne and Wilson have immediate nerdy kid chemistry, though something a bit more profound than Ron and Hermione’s burgeoning romance in the main series. This is a relationship quite a bit subtler, more adult even in its nature. While the cast is full of great players: Colin Farrell as “Percival Graves” has an incredible back and forth with a surprisingly ranged Ezra Miller as “Credence Barebone”. Samantha Morton really extends herself into a fantastically evil role as main antagonist “Mary Lou Barebone”. Where the cast really shined, besides its leads, was in the main supporting cast. Alison Sudol is absolutely charming as Tina’s sister “Queenie”, weaving her ability to read minds into an effective characterization of what could have easily been a pigeonholed character. Dan Fogler is equally as excellent in support of Redmayne in his portrayal of no-maj “Jacob Kowalski”, who serves as an audience surrogate in a way with his wonder at the new mysteries and magic around him, but is performance really blossoms into a love of his character, someone willing to help and accept help.
Overall, if you are a fan of the Potterverse or really any of the Harry Potter movies, this is a must see. Despite the somewhat clunky pace of its writing and its clear spot as the beginning of a franchise, if you have any affinity for this world you can forgive that easily. Even for those not wrapped up in the world of modern sorcery, this is a fantasy movie that is worth watching. Just for the maturation of the series, this film displays an interesting development in one of the modern era’s most significant pop culture icons. Regardless, if you are in the mood for magic with a hint of melancholy, fantasy with a bit more human factuality to it, this is the movie to see.
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