It was only a matter of time before a Harry Potter expanded universe outside of the main novels became a reality. Earlier this year Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a massively successful and critically acclaimed stage play (or rather two stage plays), opened in London. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them puts the Potter world back on the big screen in a major way, and will no doubt be a similar till-ringing success. With sequels in this spin-off series already announced, it seems JK Rowling’s wizarding world will be with us for some time to come.
Fantastic Beasts is set in the 1920s, and tells of the misadventures of one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard arriving in New York with a case full of magical beasts. If you’ve ever wondered what the interior of Mary Poppins’s carpet bag might have looked like, this film provides an idea, with the TARDIS-esque interior (ie bigger on the inside) of Newt’s suitcase resembling a curious and fantastic zoo filled with stunning magical creatures. Of course, a series of unfortunate incidents involving a suitcase mix-up with aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) leads to said creatures getting loose in New York. In trying to recover them, Newt’s problems are compounded by an initially hostile reception from US magical society, and darker villains – for example, the obviously up-to-no-good Auror Graves (Colin Farrell), and pseudo-religious zealot Mary Lou (Samantha Morten) who along with the abused orphans in her care want to purge New York from the presence of witches and wizards.
Redmayne is all gangly awkwardness as Scamander, not looking directly at his fellow humans but always engaging with the creatures in his care. He shares something of Hagrid’s lunacy in that sense, although he is a very different character. He also very much reminded me of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who. The supporting cast – which also includes Jon Voight, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol and Johnny Depp in a small but vital role – does well, and director David Yates, responsible for the last four Potter movies, helms with a sure hand. Visual effects are spectacular throughout (although a little CGI heavy at times) and the various monsters and creatures a great deal of fun (I particularly loved the Niffler).
All that said, the film feels a little on the overlong side, given the slightness of the premise. One gets the impression that other subplots are being set up for sequels, and such inevitable franchise building means sacrificing a tighter, leaner film. The plot isn’t exactly unpredictable either, especially if you’re familiar with the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. However, on the plus side it’s messages are commendable, given the uncomfortable parallels to familiar American problems. Newt Scamander is very much the introverted British outsider, commenting with incredulous disbelief on (allegorical) racism, miscegenation and prejudice in general. For a start, there are the obvious misunderstandings and ignorance from Mary Lou and her misguided cause. Then there is the way wizards are kept apart from the rest of society and forbidden to marry “Nomags” – non-magical people – with such unbending strictness.
Such themes are present though not to my mind preachy, and merely add another thread to the strong moral fabric underpinning JK Rowling’s Potter universe. Although probably not destined for classic status, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, in final analysis, a fun and diverting film for all the family.