Imagine a magical version of BBC Documentary Life on Earth and instead of the charming warmth and wisdom of David Attenborough; you have a ticking, face contorting Eddie Redmayne.
Grab onto your ‘pensive,’ J.K Rowling and collaborator director David Yates are taking us back to the Harry Potter-verse by way of 1920s New York City. Adapting her bonus guide to the fauna of the magical world into a new series (five films in total we’re told) begins by taking the audience out of the U.K and into the new world, the U.S.A. Newt Scamader (Redmayne) has entered the country with a case of magical creatures, intending to finalise his manuscript of the same name when some of those naughty beasts escape. As magical beast begins to wreak havoc on the ‘no-mag’ (muggle) population, Scamander befriends a Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and two magical sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) to re-acquire all the passengers of his suitcase and restore order before the American Muggles (i’m not calling them No-Majs so there) bring the Salem Witch Trials to the ‘Big Apple.’
David Yates, that director behind the final four Harry Potter films, and the most recent Tarzan reboot, is the kind of filmmaker that is at home with the sooty, stained and grim aesthetic. From the fifth Harry Potter novel the source material lends itself to a darker and drearier atmosphere. Yates essentially coloured within the lines that director Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban so beautifully blueprinted. Beasts shines (and so does Yates’ formal aptitude) in the quietly composed moments of wonder, intrigue and keeping cards close to its chest about the fate of what’s to come. Scamander showing off his collection of beasts to Kowalski reflects the vastness of magically conjured in the characters warm gazes. Colin Farrell’s Graves manipulating to Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone occurs in the stranglehold of dilapidated spaces.
1920s feels like the perfect fertile ground for J.K to be able to bring together the very best of the United States as country. It’s a time of prosperity, industry, innovation and NYC is the world’s city, drawing in wave after wave of migrants from all over the world to carve their slice of the American Dream out of Manhattan. The magical community is thriving and bubbling beneath the surface of New York City, but the levels of sophistication that the British magical community had reached by the time we’d reached during the time of Harry Potter, meant that the Wizarding community was completely in the shadows. 1920s NYC on the other hand, was largely reliant upon Wizards behaving well; lest the shocked muggles going mad or worse, running off to thriving Newspaper men like Shaw Snr. played by Jon Voight (a George Hearst stand-in). There are fanatical religious figures attempting to illuminate the larger population of hidden forces of magic.
The opening hour of Fantastic Beasts function firstly as Newt’s story of losing and then seeking out his missing briefcase passengers. The subplot is of another, powerful beast lose in the city, and Colin Farrell’s ruthless MACUSA agent Graves attempting to control it, bubbles beneath the surface, simmering like magma before an inevitable explosive confrontation. During Newt’s search, he and his companions realise that the chaos of Newt’s case is providing the subterfuge for this bigger and badder bad beast.
It’s not unusual in a J.K Rowling text to be drawn to the characters in the orbit of the leading character. By the time you reached the seventh book in the original series characters like Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood become as essential as Harry, Hermione and Ron (perhaps more so than Ron). However, Redmayne’s performance as Scamander felt so forced as he dialled up the quirks that it was impossible to relate to the character beneath the series of affectations. There’s almost a fundamental problem with Newt’s position as the lead in the film. Newt is the magical insider whose objective is to keep his purpose and package secret. Sudol’s Queenie and Fogler’s Kowalski are the true magic of the film, without being overtly magical. Queenie is the element of magical mystery and the lure of having insight into each of the characters destiny and only revealing it subtle, warm interactions. Kowalski is totally new to the magical world. He’s the character that’s affable, down to earth and an everyman. Incidentally, Fogler’s grandfather was actually a Baker in Queens in real life, so there’s some strange magic of him in this universe. Katherine Waterston’s Tina has been demoted from the post of Auror and she’s desperate to use Newt as a means to be returned to her post. Waterston seems to get a contact high from Redmayne and is a bundle of stuttering and ticks.
In defence of Fantastic Beasts, the first film in the Potter franchise doesn’t exactly make anyone’s ‘favourite’ list. It was burdened with establishing the series, there’s a lot of world building stuff that has to go on and you cannot expect to immediately be swept off of your feet with every character or every character to reveal their true potential (Snape). Like the first chapter of any story, it has the burden of making you want to come back; and not just for the desperate satisfaction of knowing what’s next.
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling
Eddie Redmayne ... Newt
Colin Farrell ... Graves
Katherine Waterston ... Tina
Alison Sudol ... Queenie
Dan Fogler ... Kowalski
Samantha Morton ... Mary Lou
Ezra Miller ... Credence Barebone
Faith Wood-Blagrove ... Modesty Barebone
Jenn Murray ... Chastity Barebone
Kevin Guthrie ... Mr. Abernathy
Ronan Raftery ... Langdon Shaw
Tom Hodgkins ... Barker
Jon Voight ... Shaw Senior
Josh Cowdery ... Henry Shaw Jnr / Senator Shaw