Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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After the last Harry Potter film was released five years ago, some people believed that love for the franchise would soon wane. But, much to their surprise, the Harry Potter-verse is as popular now as ever. To supplement this popularity is a new film based on another of author J.K. Rowling’s works.

Sometime in the 1920s, British wizard and magical-creature enthusiast Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City with his leather suitcase filled with all sorts of specimen. It isn’t too long before one of Newt’s creatures escapes from his suitcase, running amok through a local bank. The proceeding chase scene sees Newt reveal his wizard powers to Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), a No-maj – or as the Brits would call him, a Muggle.

Having broken one of the wizarding world’s strictest laws, Newt is taken into custody by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an Auror who works for the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Meanwhile, Kowalski has accidentally taken possession of Newt’s suitcase and released more of his creatures into the open. Though they pose no threat to New York’s citizens, anti-magic sentiment is strong in the city, and any further exposure to magic will only see relations worsen.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes its title from the book of the same name, which itself was a companion piece to the Harry Potter novels. Where the book was written simply as a guide to magical creatures, the Fantastic Beasts film has a wholly original screenplay written by J.K. Rowling herself. Consequently, this means one’s enjoyment of the film is dependent on how much they enjoy the Harry Potter series.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, or terms such as “Muggle” or “Auror”, fear not. The film does not bamboozle the viewer with overly obscure terminology, nor does it make frequent references to its sister franchise. Though the connection to Harry Potter is there, Fantastic Beasts works just as well on its own, a fact which deserves to be celebrated. This vibe comes through strongly in the orchestral score by James Newton Howard, which sounds unlike any of the previous films.

Even so, there is a grim tone to Fantastic Beasts which is certainly not appreciated. The cinematography makes New York look dull and depressing – even when inhabited by Newt’s colourful creatures – while a subplot involving a teenager named Credence (Ezra Miller) makes for some very depressing viewing. (By the way, this tone is no accident – director David Yates, as well as producers David Heyman and Steve Kloves, have all previously worked on the Harry Potter films.)

Yet there is joy to be found in the performances. Redmayne brings whimsy and innocence to the role of Newt; Folger makes Kowalski a likeable sidekick rather than a simple comic-relief/fish-out-of-water character; and Kowalski’s love-interest Queenie (Alison Sudol) is quirky and eccentric without ever being annoying. How wonderful it is to see a group of actors who look like they’re actually enjoying themselves.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will no doubt enthral Harry Potter fans, but it does just enough to draw in other viewers as well. Its charming characters shine through the glumness, making the movie anything but a cash-grabbing spin-off.

3 stars

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