Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows nearly every blockbuster pattern one could possibly imagine: it has stereotypical characters including a portly, comical audience surrogate who just wants a simple life baking cakes, a capable but disgraced type who needs to learn to relax and be happy, and a whimsical ditz who is more perceptive than she initially seems; the film’s political analogies smack you over the head repeatedly then stand over your aching body to check that you’ve understood them; and the couple of twists it throws at the viewer are ridiculously predictable.
And yet. For all that Fantastic Beasts follows the established fantasy blockbuster template, it’s still charming, amusing and exciting enough that if you notice its flaws, you won’t really mind them. I’m not going to outline the plot—you can easily find that elsewhere—but instead, would rather talk about the film in the context of three basic categories: how it looks, how it feels, and how it thinks.
Looks are the easiest place to start. Eddie Redmayne turns the Oxbridge up to 11, outdoing even Hugh Grant when the latter was in the prime of his floppy-haired charm, and it works. He’s softly spoken, charming, shy—in essence, everything his fans love—and I came away from the cinema with a burning desire to watch The Theory of Everything. Katherine Waterston, too, is compelling to watch on-screen, if only for the moment one realizes she played Shasta Fay Hepworth in Inherent Vice, and then shifts awkwardly remembering that film in comparison to this very much more PG-rated outing. Add to that decent enough performances (considering their ease) by Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler (the aforementioned audience surrogate) and Alison Sudol (aforementioned ditz), and very creepy ones by Ezra Miller and Samantha Morton, and the humans of the film hold their own nicely. Plus, we get Ron Perlman channelling the demonic menace of Hellboy, perfectly cast as a goblin bootlegger.
It was the final Harry Potter film, also directed by David Yates, that finally cracked how to do CGI to properly to suit the atmosphere of the franchise, and happily, little has changed visually (despite, of course, the 1920s setting). An incredible sequence centred around the magical rebuilding of New York after mass destruction by the eponymous beasts and other, darker forces is captivating, and the evil final-boss “Obscurus” thingy, which is so poorly explained that even now I don’t quite get what it is, looks like the brilliantly animated Mimics of Edge of Tomorrow—all whirling, furious, stabbing arms of writhing black-grey smoke. That smoke, of course, is Fantastic Beasts’ iteration of the standard apocalyptic demon-cloud-pillar the heroes must defeat in every single blockbuster these days—think Suicide Squad, Avengers Assemble, and so on. Once again, the film follows a template, but it’s visually engaging enough that one doesn’t really mind.
So how does the film feel? I read an article on Birth.Movies.Death. that complained that the cinematic world of Fantastic Beasts wasn’t fleshed out enough, and that it took itself too seriously. “The biggest crime you can commit when creating a world of magic is to rob it of its wonder, and Fantastic Beasts is guilty on several counts,” it said. As I sat down in the cinema, I was slightly worried that BMD’s criticisms would be validated. They weren’t.
The canon is built up, not too obviously, but gradually. We finally see foreign wizards and witches from countries other than France and Scandinavia, and learn of magical communities as far afield as Sudan and East Asia. Little details like umbrellas conjured from the ends of wands, and visual trickery that we’ve seen in previous Potter films like the big translucent barrier shield conjured by the aurors (sorry, mega-fans, if this has a name I am unaware of it) mean that this is clearly a film taking place in the same world as the original series, but with specific details that one would have expected to change between 1920s New York and the late-90s UK (when the original seven books are set).
Another link to that established world is provided by the brief appearance of Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald, which is beyond exciting for any fan who thought this character—at long last, a villain who might have some sort of deeper internal conflict and motivation than pure evil, desire for power, or racism—was underused in the original books, and by the easter eggs sprinkled through the story, including the fleeting mention of a romance between Newt and… well, let’s just say an interestingly named character.
Fantastic Beasts is funny, too. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, regularly pointing out the absurdity of many aspects of the wizarding world. It ought to be a good history lesson for young fans, as well: the film explores everything from the millionaire press barons of the turn of the century to whole immigrant families cramped in block upon block of tiny tenement flats. JK Rowling wrote the film, and her talent for building a believable world is on show here, but without the relative weakness of her prose which is, in my opinion, pretty bland.
Which brings us to the final point: how the film “thought”. There are, of course, many small questions that spring to mind which don’t actually matter. Do wizards not get fat, for example, if they apparate when they have to travel more than a few feet? (Apparation is a major enabler of certain plot points in the film; it’s far more present than in the original eight movies, but perhaps walking is similarly anathema to Americans as taking public transport?) Plus, when so much of modern Hogwarts is dated by medieval technology, why is New York so clearly rooted in the 1920s? In this film, for instance, we see self-typing typewriters, whereas in 90s Hogwarts, they still use quills. These are obviously minor points of contention; anyone seriously bothered by them needs to learn to suspend disbelief. Perhaps more objectionable is how the plot is somewhat confused, but the joy of being back immersed in this world is outweighed by any complications and oversights. Simply put, Fantastic Beasts is a very likeable film.
Much has been made of the politics of the film. In fact, almost every review I’ve read so far makes a big point of it. It’s not subtle by any means, and I really, really don’t like retroactively applying scenarios from Harry Potter onto political events that have far deeper, more conflicted roots than a magic “dark lord” doing bad shit. Nor do I like JK Rowling preaching and assuming because she is a successful writer anyone should give a damn about what she thinks about the Labour Party, which is usually articulated with all the finesse and observation of the fourteen-year-olds she writes for. That said, Fantastic Beasts is clearly deliberately written with certain events in mind, rather than being twisted until it works as an analogy—it’s a work of art, as it were, that takes a political stance of the artist who created it. I can get on board with that a lot more. If it gets some some people thinking, what can the harm be?
In essence, then, there are two ways to watch the film. Either go in expecting a searing commentary on populism, nationalism and intolerance (and if you’re an intelligent person, you’ll probably be disappointed), or just enjoy the sheer thrill of a well-made, feature-length return to the world of the most successful franchise ever. You’ll have fun. And what’s more, you won’t even have to win a ticket lottery to do so.