EXCLUSIVE REVIEW // Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
L was lucky enough to attend an advance screening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on premiere night. This review is spoiler-free.
This evening whilst sitting in the cinema watching the opening sequence for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, listening to the first bars of that all-too-familiar theme, I experienced a sensation I thought I had experienced for the very last time five years ago with Deathly Hallows Part 2; that goosebumpy, heart-fluttery, smile-twitching, thrill of watching a Harry Potter film for the first time. As the music swelled I could feel every single person in the room being swept back into that universe on a wondrous tide of nostalgia and anticipation, returning once more to that world which is so familiar and so comforting to generations of people. Only magic elicits that feeling.
First of all, this movie still very much feels like the Potter universe. There is also something innately magical and charming about a 1920s setting; the aesthetics of each marry together gorgeously and the story is very well-placed in this respect. It has that essential look and texture and lustre which belongs uniquely to the wizarding world, and that link is vital in making Fantastic Beasts feel as though it exists in tandem with the Potter films rather than aside from them.
However, thankfully, this film knows when to draw close associations with the original series and when to cut loose and forge its own path and legacy as an entirely new story. If you go to see Fantastic Beasts expecting it to be Harry Potter 8 – even though it has never implied or claimed itself to be that – you are going to be sorely disappointed. This is a very different film. This is the Potter films’ grown up, older cousin. It is dark, it is mature, it has grown with its audience; those 10 year olds who, wide-eyed and in awe, began their journey 15 years ago and are still very much on the Hogwarts Express with it all.
Fantastic Beasts balances the insane scope and majesty of introducing an entirely new aspect of the wizarding world with a solid plot, lots of large-scale action and many humorous moments. It also had some wonderful non-wizarding-specific moments which made me grin like a Cheshire cat. The first (and biggest) was the casting of a woman of colour as the President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). During a scene of a council of magical leaders a good proportion of those leaders were also women of colour. Non-white females respected and in a position of power in 1920s America – unheard of in muggle history, a no-brainer in wizard history. Others were very subtle moments of criticism for America as a country; Newt Scamander makes a wry comment about how backwards it is for American wizards to forbid friendship and even just plain interaction with “no-maj” folk, or muggles to us Brits (nice ol’ dig at racial segregation there), and elsewhere there are references to the stereotypical American police response of shooting / attacking before talking.
My main –and probably only – real criticism of this movie is some of the casting choices. Seeing Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald really took me out of the movie bubble I had been ravenously engrossed in for the previous 70 minutes. Likewise, it took me a good 5 or 10 minutes to stop seeing Eddie Redmayne as Eddie Redmayne and instead as Newt Scamander, and the first few scenes of Colin Farrell’s screen time I spent trying to remember his name. Seeing such Hollywood faces crop up in the Potter universe – including one face who has been outed as wife-beater within the past year – did take me out of the action somewhat. It slightly ruins the effect to have accepted and engrossed yourself in this brand new era of Potter and then to suddenly be confronted with Jack Sparrow – sorry, Johnny Depp, although the two are pretty much synonymous at this point, right? – and to have to accept him also into a world which is so precious and safe and beloved by millions. It would have been nice for all of the main characters to have been cast with early-career actors or unknowns, in a similar way to the new Star Wars. They have done this in a few instances and for that I am thankful. The one thing that takes you out of the magic is recognising a distinguishing face from the muggle world of Hollywood. I’m just being really picky here.
In summary, Fantastic Beasts proves itself and holds its own. It proves that it is capable of stepping up to the incredibly high mark of the Potter film universe and adding its own distinguishing mark right alongside it. The performances are strong, the essentials of the Potter universe are present and permeating, and the execution is not embarrassingly labouring to either differentiate itself from or to assimilate the original series. It is layered and nuanced and proves that it is worthy of its association with such a widely and deeply beloved franchise as this; it treats this status with due reverence and respect, yet all the while is bold and striking and carves the way for a new era of magic.