Could spin-offs be the new sequels? 2016 is certainly the year where big franchises are attempting the experiment. In the last few months of the year, both the Star Wars and Harry Potter cinematic universes are expanding with standalone stories that further explore these vast (and highly profitable) fictional worlds.
New release Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first of five films intended to fill gaps in Harry Potter‘s wizarding world history, long before the birth of the franchise’s title character. And as the start of a new spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts is a solid effort that establishes its own identity and delivers some genuine surprises… even if it takes a while to find its stride.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them shares its name with a Hogwarts textbook that Harry Potter author JK Rowling released for charity years ago. However, that was a tie-in reference work, whereas the new movie features an original story written by Rowling: a huge departure from the adventures of Harry and co.
Set in 1926, Fantastic Beasts centres on British wizard and pioneering magical beast conservationist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who arrives in New York during troubled times. Anti-witch and -wizard sentiment is at a peak, as a result of multiple mysterious attacks, while the wizarding world is on high alert because powerful dark magician Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose. When some of Newt’s creatures escape from his briefcase, he is sucked into the drama, along with demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and non-wizard everyman Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). This mismatched band must recapture the creatures while avoiding Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the scheming, suspicious Director of Magical Security.
Although there is a lot of warm camaraderie between Newt, Jacob and the Goldstein sisters, it’s clear from the outset of Fantastic Beasts that audiences shouldn’t expect the charm and inherent good nature of the Harry Potter series. Rowling shows us a very different wizarding world across the Atlantic; one that mirrors contemporary, cynical reality with its high levels of distrust, discrimination, and swelling fanaticism on all sides. There’s even a magically updated threat level indicator in America’s Magical Congress building.
Yeah, this isn’t kids’ stuff. You realise this even before brutal deaths start occurring onscreen, and the movie segues into Harry Potter meets The Exorcist. A lot of story and thematic elements are introduced in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Probably too many, to be honest. At times, the film feels like two movies mashed together, with one a comical attempt to catch cute magical creatures running amok, and the other a pitch-black tale of how abuse and self-loathing can dovetail to create monsters.
This said, Fantastic Beasts always feels like its own entity. It’s certainly not a reskinned Harry Potter trying to shoehorn itself into a familiar formula. It does, however, take a while for it to settle into its skin. Much like its stiff, probably-on-the-spectrum protagonist.
Speaking of which, one of the film’s biggest strengths is its casting. Fogler and Sudol are especially likeable, while Redmayne gets to show that beneath Newt’s quirks is a lot of secret hurt. His is a far more nuanced character than we’ve seen in Rowling’s wizarding world before. Fantastic Beasts really benefits from its A-grade onscreen talent. Further examples are Ezra Miller and Samantha Morton, who round out the cast, and dial up the emotional intensity during every scene they appear.
When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gives its actors room to breathe, and the audience time to appreciate the intricate world creation – along with the “fantastic beasts” themselves – the movie is at its strongest. This is most evident during the film’s middle portion. Fantastic Beasts’ ending, despite a subway battle that puts Suicide Squad to shame, is a bit too neat to feel truly satisfying.
And that’s it, really. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is busy, it’s far from perfect, but it features a fascinating historical setting I’d be very happy to revisit and explore further. As for watching the film in 3D (a choice along with 2D and 3D IMAX in South Africa), Fantastic Beasts doesn’t utilise the format with the ingenuity of Doctor Strange, but it’s perfectly watchable… if a little gimmicky.
Last Updated: November 24, 2016