Save JJ Abrams and Star Wars: The Force Awakens I don’t think any director or film has had such a weight on their shoulders or such ardent fans to please. To say Fantastic Beasts had a lot to live up to would be an understatement. The Potter books and films have changed the world. Returning Potter Director David Yates had a task and a half on his hands, so too did JK Rowling who takes script writing reins here (and for the subsequent four installments).
And did they pull it off?
The familiar Potter soundtrack plays as the Warner Bros logo hovers forward through dark clouds… The opening sequence is slightly ambiguous, giving way to the familiar montage of Daily Prophet headlines about a dark wizard. But not the dark wizard we’re all familiar with. Grindelwald takes over bad-guy duties from Voldemort for this franchise and even though he doesn’t yet take centre stage, his menacing presence conjures some solid atmosphere.
Atmosphere is what David Yates does best, and the foreboding he brought to the final four Potter films is evident from the first few seconds of Fantastic Beasts. But Yates also brought style and awe to his Potter films and he doesn’t hold back on either with Fantastic Beasts. Every scene is rich in detail, most of which isn’t spotted until second or third viewings. The 1920’s New York setting is a big change from the epic landscapes and castle corridors of Hogwarts that we’re used to, but it’s just as compelling and makes Rowling’s world seem that much more real and sprawling.
Eddie Redmayne had a tough responsibility too, taking over protagonist duties from Harry, Ron and Hermione and having to carry what is essentially an origin story for the Fantasic Beasts series. Redmayne himself can’t be faulted. Newt Scamander is awkward, bumbling, avoiding eye contact and generally rubbing people up the wrong way, more Sherlock Holmes than Harry Potter. But at times Scamander doesn’t feel like the protagonist, mostly going along with what is happening rather than forwarding the plot. The other actors and their characters suffer the same, taking a step back so the world-building, plot and set-up can all be handled. The characters will be fleshed out in the next installment, but for now they’re not as compelling as Harry, Ron and Hermione. Where Rowling’s script does excel is in how contemporary it’s morals are. There are more than a few allusions to the divisions of today’s society, the prejudices and political turmoil and despite it’s period setting, Fantastic Beasts is never old-fashioned.
For all its awesome special effects and spectacle, slick directing and great acting, Fantastic Beasts is not perfect. Rowling’s script is sharp when it comes to dialogue, but a bit thin in story. The first film was always going to be more about set-up than story, and it is the case here. A slow first half and a slump in the middle throw the pacing off, and there is never a clear main plot to invest in. Gathering up the escaped Fantastic Beasts offers plenty of chances for great set pieces (Scamander’s imitation of a mating ritual, a chase sequence in a department store among a memorable dozen) but it isn’t strong enough to be the bones of a film. The various other sub-plots are interesting but, can at times feel all over the place and until the final, massively impressive, climax Fantastic Beasts is as scatterbrained as it’s main character.
But in that impressive climax, with a twist that I didn’t see coming and which I defy anyone to guess beforehand, and Yates’ pitch-perfect directing, the stunning CGI and photography, Fantastic Beasts does deliver a prequel worthy of the Potter films. Fans will be grinning at foreshadowings and at the mere joy of being back in the Wizarding World and newcomers may be a little confused but will find plenty of enjoyment.
Fantastic Beasts is not perfect, but neither were any of the Potter films. It had a tough task of setting up a world, story and characters, and overall… it pulled it off and promises great things for future installments.