Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes us back to the world of Harry Potter. Set in 1920s New York, it is the first of five movies that will expand the universe in which Harry Potter and co. run about in the 21st century – all to be penned by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates.
Beasts feels like a the natural next step in the evolution of Rowling’s immeasurably popular Harry Potter franchise, especially in the era of “expanded universes” a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Star Wars with the upcoming A Star Wars Story movies. As someone who has been burned out on Marvel for awhile now, and is already kinda over-exposed to Star Wars – without watching any trailers or promotional material (for anything) – I did not expect to like Beasts at all. Even as someone whose childhood was very much shaped by the earlier Harry Potter movies – I must have watched the first one close to a 100 times at this point – I was certain that this wouldn’t do very much for me, on the purely subjective basis that I’m tired of all these expanded universes, cross-overs and decade-spanning franchises. Luckily, I had a lot of fun with this one.
For those unaware, the movie introduces a whole new set of characters – some mentioned or alluded to in the Harry Potter movies/books – and follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard who studies fantastic beasts – and goes onto write the book the movie takes its title from – along with Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and a many more. It is therefore easy for anyone and everyone to jump into Beasts whether you’ve seen/read Harry Potter or not.
It is far from perfect – it’s story-arch is nonsensical, it’s side-characters lack any depth or color, it could’ve been cut down heavily, and the climax/set-up for more feels totally uninspired and trite – but, the world is realised beautifully. You feel at home in its absurdity and quirkiness from the start, and while it is tonally and structurally a far cry from the Harry Potter movies, the soul is still intact. One of the biggest strengths of Harry Potter for me has always been its world, how it feels both lived in and alive – the paintings at Hogwarts, the stores and bars of Hogsmeade (yes, I had to Google that) – and Beasts is equally eloquent in its misé-en-scene. Not only is 1920s New York beautifully rendered – as far as a Norwegian 22 year old can tell – the added spices of the wizardry world is magnificent. We see wizardry bureaucracy at work, we visit a local bar in a scene that invites comparisons to the cantina scene of Star Wars, and we fall into a magical mystical suit-case that, as tents and bags have been before, are much larger than they appear from the outside.
The titular beasts are of course important, and they are all cute and funny or strange and scary, or all of the above. It feels very much like Harry Potter meets Pokémon, which is about as fun and shallow as it sounds. While the many (many!) scenes with the different beasts allow for laughter and “aww”s they sadly never aspire to be much more, and outside the main story-arch of “beats are loose, gotta catch ‘em all” it doesn’t add much to the movie in terms of characterization or story. This is, however, more a fundamental problem with its story. It doesn’t feel fully realised, like they are not sure how or why certain actions lead to certain reactions and consequences, only that it has to lead to a final resolution that sets up the coming movies. It does attempt to make a statement on the effects of suppressed fear and anger, and there are moments of prejudice that resonate painfully with the modern world – especially painful in regards to the last week – and all this works to a certain extent, but it becomes muddled under too many scenes of cute beast-shennanigangs and villainous villainy.
All my problems aside, I did have a fun time with it. It manages to transport you into the world of magic and bizarre creatures yet again, and while the overall story doesn’t interest me in the slightest, I do look forward to explore the universe further, and to do so through Redmayne (who is Redmayne) and the always remarkable Waterston.