Fantastic Beasts review: For JK Rowling. For Harry. Even after all these years
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director - David Yates
Cast - Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller
Rating - 3.5/5
There are 8 Harry Potter books on my shelf. Their neighbours, across the room, are 8 Harry Potter films. There are t-shirts in my wardrobe, posters on my wall, and a figurine on my desk. I am, as you may have guessed, a fan. I have been, since I was 10-years-old, and remain one to this day… even after all these years.
A fan’s eye is the most honest. We are a critical lot; demanding, yet forgiving. So while we might enter with the optimism that comes only with a healthy vial-full of Professor Slughorn’s choicest Felix Felicis (the luck potion), we never overlook flaws. Fortunately, Fantastic Beasts, the Harry Potter prequel, has few of those. It is instead, a film full of endless charm, thrilling spectacle, and above all, magic.
But what if, one day, all memory of Harry Potter and JK Rowling’s wonderful wizarding world were to be taken away? What if one day, this magic that has become a part of us now, were to disappear?
This is the question Jacob Kowalski asks himself. Only 15 minutes ago, he was headed to the bank, hoping to get a loan with which he planned to open a bakery to make his grandma proud. And then, he ran into Newt Scamander, our magizoologist hero, and his suitcase-full of magical creatures.
In the scenes that follow, Jacob watches a Niffler (a platypus-like creature with an affinity for bling) wreak mayhem in said bank, apparates in and out of said bank’s vaults, unwittingly takes part in a robbery of the increasingly unfortunate said bank, eats the most delicious strudel he has ever tasted (created by magic, of course), kicks into motion the plot for the rest of the movie (by releasing several magical creatures upon New York City by mistake) – and even gets to experience love at first sight.
So when their little adventure ends, and the time comes for him to have his memory wiped – he is a no-maj, you see; the American version of a muggle (a person with no magical ability), who simply can’t be allowed to live with knowledge of the wizarding community – he asks himself this question, only to wave it off with frighteningly little thought, and to follow Newt into adventure.
And what an adventure it is. For Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (which was the name of one of Harry Potter’s textbooks), JK Rowling (making her screenwriting debut) and director David Yates (returning for the fifth time to film her universe), leave the damp shores of Britain behind, and arrive, almost like Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, in 1926 New York.
Having made up my mind that the film would be full of nods to Harry Potter, overflowing with a wink here and a sly smile there, it was surprising to find that it stands firmly on its own. Unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or even the Hobbit series, Fantastic Beasts wastes little time on fan service. It refuses to play the nostalgia card, which in hindsight, was a terribly risky move.
But JK Rowling is a born storyteller. Her writing, beautiful in its simplicity, confident in its new ideas, builds a lush world, a world that grows with each new scene, always giving the impression that what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. Watching Fantastic Beasts is like being guided by Rowling herself, our hand placed gently in hers, in a world that is as warmly familiar as it is excitingly fresh.
Tonally, it is similar to David Yates’ first two Potter films – Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince – breezy, operatic, and, when it needs to be, fittingly grave.
Like its predecessors, Fantastic Beasts also owes a lot of its success to flawless casting. Eddie Redmayne, as Newt, is charmingly earnest. He is not like Harry at all, but he didn’t need to be. And in my opinion, he is better here than he was in both his Oscar-friendly roles (The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl). Everyone, from Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol (who are sort of like Hermione and Luna, if a stretch comparison were to be made), to Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller (both sinister, and both with surprises up their sleeve), are terrific.
But it’s Dan Fogler’s movie. His thoughtful take on Jacob, who is essentially a comic relief character, a bumbling fool we’re supposed to point and laugh at, is astoundingly sincere. His romantic arc with Alison Sudol’s Queenie, set against the gorgeous backdrop of Jay Gatsby’s Jazz Age New York, is the heart and soul of this film.
But could we see ourselves becoming their friends, like we became Harry, Ron and Hermione’s? We’re going to take part in their adventures for the next 10 years. We’re going to watch Newt fight for his beloved animals and we’re going to watch the love of his life return. We’ll be watching when Jon Voight’s news magnate takes revenge. And then there is Johnny Depp, who with only two lines as Gellert Grindelwald, the darkest wizard of his time, seared an impression.
It’s all very exciting.
But despite all this; despite the innocence and wonder, despite the heroism and friendship, despite the magic…
It’s Harry. It’ll always be Harry. Even after all these years.