*Have no fear, this is a spoiler free review*
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the best Harry Potter related movie to date. The film has easily been one of the most anticipated movies of the season. And, in a very crowded month of big movie premiers, it would take an awful lot for any film to stand out from the crowd. Fantastic Beasts not only stands out, it shines.
The film opens in fear. Fear of Gellert Grindlewald, of the No-Maj (the American term for ‘muggle’), of the witch and wizard. Set in 1920’s New York, a prosperous time and place, the wizarding community is at ends. A foreign terrorist, Grindlewald, has the magical world gripped in paranoia. A fringe anti-magic movement threatens to reveal actual witches and wizards to the world. And, most sinister of all, an unassuming British wizard named Newt accidentally leaves his briefcase open too long. Creatures escape. Destruction ensues. But we knew all that from the trailers, didn’t we?
Speaking of Newt Scamander, Eddie Redmayne as the leading character was spectacular! Redmayne’s Newt is unassuming as he is charming. He’s a man who has been surrounded by spectacular magic, but still allows himself to be impressed by the New York cityscape. Newt is not the traditional magical hero in that he isn’t particularly graceful, nor is he some magical prodigy. What he is though, is clever. Clever and caring. He’s a character that stands in stark contrast to the majority of previous Harry Potter characters. He isn’t someone who needs to learn, but rather someone who can teach.
Redmayne shines as Newt in his interactions with the supporting cast, particularly Dan Fogle’s Jacob Kowalski. Fogle absolutely steals the show. Kowalski is a down on his luck factory worker with humble dreams. He meets Newt through happenstance and is shown a magical world beyond his wildest fantasies. Newt really comes into his own in Kowalski’s company, introducing him to magical creatures and adventuring with him through New York. As Kowalski, Fogle is funny, likable, and relatable – an underdog through and through. The two together are a team worth cheering for.
Don’t worry though, there’s plenty of romance to balance out the bro-mance. Witches Tina and Queenie Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol respectively, are two working class sisters. They become entwined in the fates of Newt and Kowalski early on in the film. Queenie particularly ruled any scene she was in. It felt that every person in my theater fell in love with her from the moment she was put on camera. The four of them together venture out to save the city, themselves, and the titular beasts.
In addition to the four leading characters, it should be said that Colin Farrell was wonderful as the Auror Graves, and Ezra Miller gave a breathtaking performance as the conflicted youth, Credence Barebone. Director David Yates had a wonderfully talented cast to work with, and they crafted some truly memorable characters. Amongst such memorable characters as found in the Harry Potter universe, that’s saying something.
But, the acting wasn’t the only thing that made Fantastic Beasts a great movie. We’re introduced to some new and imaginative locations this time around. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA for short) is the American equivalent of England’s Ministry of Magic. The MACUSA, hidden in plain sight as per magical tradition, is a wonder to see on screen. The effects department for the film created an indoor skyscraper that extends indefinitely upward and downward. Imagine turning the Empire State Building inside out and extending it farther than the eye can see. It is an ingenious effect and really plays nicely with the American magic aesthetic.
The other standout location is the inside of Newt’s briefcase. I think that that particular set is award worthy. It’s built like the combination of a farmhouse and a movie set, magically contained within a briefcase, and magically containing the various habitats of the diverse creatures that Newt has rescued over the years. Warner Bros. didn’t reveal this particular set in the trailers or in press releases, and I won’t do it here either. Suffice it to say that of all the places that Newt and company go, you will remember the inside of his case the most.
The acting, along with imaginative sets, wonderful visual effects, incredible creature design, and well placed Potter Easter eggs make Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them an incredible cinematic experience. There is, however, one last strength that this movie has that no other Potter film to date can claim – the script. J. K. Rowling wrote an original screenplay for this film, and it shows.
Each Harry Potter film before now has been an adaptation – an attempt to tell a hundreds page long story in the span of a couple hours. It is an almost insurmountable task, and the Potter films did it better than most, but film makers can never really escape the curse of “the movie was good, but the book was better.” As much as I love the Potter films, it is impossible for them to live outside of the shadow of the novels. This isn’t a bad thing, but Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have that expectation to live up to. It’s a self contained story that doesn’t heavy handedly remind us that we’ve got four more films in the works (*cough*marvel*cough*). It’s a movie story that was built from day one to be told as a movie! That’s a big advantage to have over any other story that was built to be a novel first, and a film second.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a magical foray into a familiar world full of the unfamiliar. New and original characters play well off of one another. An expertly crafted script breathes new life into a film franchise that just won’t quit – and I loved every minute of it. Of all the films to come out this month, including powerhouses like Dr. Strange and Moana, Fantastic Beasts stands out as original yet familiar, exciting yet heartwarming, and witty yet serious. It delivers a full story, while still promising more fun for the future.