Director – David Yates, Screenplay – J.K. Rowling, Based on Her Book, Producers – David Heyman, Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling & Lionel Wigram, Photography (3D) – Philippe Rousselot, Music – James Newton Howard, Visual Effects Supervisors – Tim Burke & Christian Manz, Visual Effects – Double Negative, Framestore (Supervisors – Andy Kind & Stepane Naze), Image Engine, Method Studios, Milk Visual Effects (Supervisor – Nicolas Hernandez), MPC (Supervisor – Ferran Domenech), Rodeo FX & Secret Lab (Supervisor – Olcun Tan), Special Effects Supervisor – David Watkins, Production Design – Stuart Crag & James Hambridge. Production Company – Heyday Films.
Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Carmen Ejogo (Seraphina Picquery), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw Sr), Faith Wood-Blagrove (Modesty Barebone), Jenn Murray (Chastity Barebone), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Peter Breitmayer (Mr Bingley), Josh Cowdery (Henry Shaw Jr), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindewald)
The year 1926. Wizard Newt Scamander arrives in the United States with a suitcase of magical creatures. He is engaged on a mission to chart all the magical creatures there are and has come in search of rare ones only to be found in the US. On the streets of New York, a Niffler escapes from the suitcase and gets into a bank vault where it tries to snatch valuables. In employing magic to get it back, Newt inadvertently exposes himself to Jacob Kowalski, a muggle (or No-Mag as they are referred to in the US) who has come to apply for a loan to start a bakery. In the confusion, Kowalski walks off with Newt’s suitcase instead of his own one of bakery samples. Newt is then dragged to the Magical Congress of the USA by Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein for being an unregistered wizard. She and Newt have to step in as Kowalski opens the suitcase and inadvertently looses several of the creatures. Tina takes Newt and Kowalski to stay at the apartment she shares with her sister Queenie as they set about to locate the creatures. When a young senator is killed by a magical force, Newt is dragged before the magic council. He is certain that it is not one of his creatures but an Obscurus, a dangerous magical force that is attached to someone who has been forced to repress their powers. He and Tina are sentenced to be executed but make an escape and set out to track the host of the Obscurus. At the same time, Newt becomes aware that sinister forces within the council are seeking to exploit the Obscurus.
The Harry Potter films – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – have earned over $8 billion at the box-office worldwide. Such a success is a goldmine that is not to be dismissed.
Alas, after stretching eight films out of J.K. Rowling’s seven books, the filmmakers were stuck with lack of any other source material to adapt (until she writes more). This led to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001), a title that was initially mentioned in Sorcerer’s Stone and Rowling then wrote under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. The book is not so much a story like the Harry Potter books as it is a work of pseudo-academia that offers up descriptions of the various creatures and illustrated notes about them.
Fantastic Beasts has been taken on by David Heyman and Steve Kloves, who were behind the Harry Potter films, and is handled by David Yates, the director of the last four Harry Potter films. J.K. Rowling herself writes the screenplay. Seeking another Harry Potter-like franchise, Yates has ambitiously announced Fantastic Beasts as the flagship for a series of five films.
Although the box-office enjoyed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was less than the Harry Potter films (relatively speaking), it is actually one of the better films in the series. The Harry Potter films established a single location – Hogwarts, inspired by the British boarding school environment – and stayed there, only occasionally venturing beyond its walls for all eight films. The downside of this was that the look of the series was established in the first film and the rest of the films only became progressively darker in their lighting levels.
By contrast here, David Yates and J.K. Rowling take the opportunity to broaden the canvas of the action. They do so by taking the series to New York and also by backdating the era to the 1920s. Thus the locations are not the dour environs of a school but in the streets, buildings, even speakeasies of the Jazz Age, which considerably opens the film up visually. As he showed in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) earlier in the year, one of David Yates’ strengths is a lavish eye for period detail and surroundings – if nothing else, the film’s creation of New York of the era looks gorgeous on the eye.
The other advantage that Fantastic Beasts has is that the film is written directly for the screen. Technically it is based on Rowling’s book but the entire plot of the film is one that she has made up for the film. The Harry Potter films had the disadvantage of being adapted from her books, which became increasingly bloated and more complicated as they went on. When it came to the films, the downside of this was that the on-screen stories often felt packed to the brim, or else they trimmed supporting characters back to little more than cameos. In being written directly as a film, Fantastic Beasts feels much more naturally like it belongs there. The characters have room to breathe, while the action is written in a way that offers plenty of room for David Yates to open up with visual set-pieces.
This brings us to the other delight of Fantastic Beasts – the magic creatures. Various of these – especially the Niffler and its habit of stealing every valuable it can get its paws on, or the attempts to recapture a pregnant creature amok at the New York zoo – are not only superbly directed scenes but the creatures are highly charming in their own right. The film’s real sense of wonder moment is the journey that Eddie Redmayne takes Dan Fogle on down through the various compartments of the suitcase and meetings with the various creatures in their habitats. The supplementary magical scenes also have an extraordinary calibre of effects too – one of the most charming being where Alison Sudol magically creates a strudel in front of a dumbfounded Dan Fogle.
The other delight of Fantastic Beasts is the cast. One has gotten used to Harry, Ron, Hermione et al over the course of the other films where they grew on one in much the same way that the leads in an ongoing tv series do. This shakes everything up – for one, we are dealing with a group of adult characters rather than adolescents/teens. Eddie Redmayne, a strong and acclaimed name in recent years, is relatively subdued in what is essentially a Hugh Grant performance, stammering and blushing his way through his scenes. Katharine Waterston, the daughter of Sam Waterston, is fairly colourless opposite him. Nevertheless, you could see them growing into their roles over the course of successive films. Much of the show is stolen by Dan Fogle who largely has the role of a decent ordinary everyman and being required to react in wonderment to everything he sees. Quirkily appealing is the romance that suddenly sparkles between he and Alison Sudol, better known under her stage-performing name as the singer A Fine Frenzy, who delivers everything with a breathless flutter. The quartet merge together well and you could easily welcome this group back together at the centre of a series of successive adventures.