The year of 2016 was quite rich for Harry Potter fans. Two new entries to the universe were made with the stage play The Cursed Child premiering in August in the West End, and in November with the release of the new cinematic entry to the series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a predicted series of five movies that will tell the tale of the rise and fall of the dark wizard Gellert Grindewald, the most serious threat to the wizarding world, prior to Lord Voldemort. Having already reviewed the script for the stage play, I'll now look into this other branching of the story, to see what worked, what didn't, and what we might expect for the future.
Keep in mind, this review of the movie will contain SPOILERS, not only for the movie itself, but for the Harry Potter series, as well, so be warned before continuing.
Opening with my overall impression of the movie, I have to say, I thought it was quite good. I always thought the Harry Potter movies had a fairly good handling of pacing, despite being based on very long books. However, they sometimes felt as though they were either rushing or dragging (Whiplash reference), or they postponed some plot elements and character development for later installments. FB, on the other hand, benefits from being written as a script and so feels like a fully realized story, despite being the set-up for a five-movie series. The characters are, for the most part, very well realized, the dialogue is good as is the acting, and while I have some issues with the plot, which I'll get to, there are some very interesting concepts, and intriguing twists. David Yates' direction was competent, there were no overwhelming stamps of his direction, but there were some very impressive shots, that I will point out, and the story concludes in a way that shows great potential for future sequels, given the base that was established here.
1 - Plot:
So with that out of the way, I'll give you a brief contextualization of the movie's setting. Taking place in 1926, 65 years before Harry Potter's first year at Hogwarts, the story follows Newt Scamander, a young british expert on magical creatures, in New York City. As the american wizarding community becomes more and more concerned with news of attacks by Grindelwald in Europe, as well as with the rising anti-wizard cult movements by certain No-Majs (Muggles), matters become even worse when several of Newt's creatures, which he kept in a suitcase, escape, jeopardizing the entire safety of the New York magical community. The conflict then, becomes about Newt recapturing all of his escaped creatures, with the help of the sisters Porpentina and Queenie Goldstein, who work at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), and Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj who got wrapped into this whole situation, all the while MACUSA's president Seraphina Picquery orders her Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves, to pursue them under the belief that Newt's creatures are responsible for a series of mysterious attacks happening all around the city. However Graves appears to have his own agenda, as he frequently meets with a young boy Credence, a member of an anti-wizard cult, the Second Salemers, believing that the mysterious wielder of this power he's investigating, lies within their ranks, a power he seeks to control.
So, while the story's execution on screen is competent, it suffers from a fundamental problem that follows it until the final climax of the movie. The plot ends up being split between Newt's hunt for his creatures, and Graves' investigation and the Second Salem story. While there are tie-ins during the first and second acts, they come off as coincidental, because both Newt and Graves, who carry their respective scenes, are focused on the creatures and the Second Salemers respectively, and not on each other. It doesn't heavily harm the story completely, as while the creatures plot ends up being superfluous in the final act, it's still entertaining to watch, but looking back, I wish the creatures had been more crucial to the story as a whole, and not a side-mission that has little to no effect on the final showdown.
Looking at each story individually, the Newt story is the most light-hearted, delivering the most amount of humor that feels natural coming out of the characters. The fact that it has to share time with the rest of the plot, kind of takes away from the potential attachment the audience could have made with the creatures, but it worked nonetheless, and the Niffler was definitely the star, becoming an instant fan-favourite. The opening scene at the bank was very amusing, as was the introduction of the character of Jacob. I loved the look of the MACUSA, but I didn't catch how they entered it, even after multiple viewings, which took me out of the moment. The scenes where they attempt to capture the creatures were very amusing to look at, some people didn't like the mating dance scene, but I for one thought it gave the story and the character of Newt some authenticity, it being all about understanding the behaviour of magical creatures, it felt fitting that Newt would have to do something like this to calm one down. Newt's suitcase was also a very, for the lack of a better word, magical setting, it looked beautiful, but it was hard to fully understand its layout, which kept confusing me when they were inside it. As I hinted at before, the mid-movie tie-in between the two stories happens when Newt, Tina and Jacob are imprisioned by the MACUSA, suspected of being behind the death of Senator Shaw. While I liked the interaction in the assembly, and Newt's conversation with Graves, it was the execution scene that felt off to me. I just feel like it was meant to be a very tense scene, with an unusual execution method, what with the pool and the memories, but it ended up being to much spectacle for me to be invested in, especially with how slowly that chair moved downwards. Why would an execution be so elaborate? I just couldn't buy it. They came up with an idea too unusual to feel believable. Despite that, it was a good way to give Queenie and Jacob a level of relevance within the story that they hadn't had up until that point, by having them rescue Tina and Newt. However, after this exciting moment, the story goes back to the hunt for the last creatures, that at this point in the movie, like I said, feels inconsequential. While exciting, I kept being drawn back to the Graves scenes because those were the ones packing the real stakes. By the end, the two stories merge in a satisfying way, but there isn't enough investment from Newt or Tina on Credence or even Graves because they haven't interacted nearly enough with each other, in fact, Newt meets Credence when he's already rampaging around.
I'll talk about the Graves and Credence part of the story, before I tackle the finale. It does take a smaller portion of movie time, as it should, because Newt is our lead. However, of the two plotlines, I found this one to be the more intriguing and creative, first of all, because it benefits from the two best performances in my opinion in the movie, from Ezra Miller and especially Colin Farrell. Second of all, because this felt like the story packing the real stakes throughout the entire movie. Third, because I found the idea of exploring an anti-wizard No-Maj group to be an interesting angle in a story set in the Harry Potter universe. And fourth, and possibly most importantly, because to me, the most fantastic beast in the movie, was the Obscurus, or in other words, Credence himself. It's in my opinion the most original concept of the movie, feels one hundred percent like something JK would think of, and it integrates itself perfectly within the already established universe and stories (the most obvious of these integrations being with Ariana Dumbledore's tragedy). But beyond that, it's also a menacing force that transmits dread whenever it comes on screen. One of my favourite scenes in the movie was the death of senator Shaw, just because of how chilling it was, it sure as hell shut me up when I saw it, because it was so brutal and sudden. It was the perfect representation of an overwhelming force of nature, hiding the fragile and tortured Credence within, a clever way to show how repression can ultimately lead to explosion, something that somewhat relates with how Grindelwald reacts to MACUSA's oppressive laws over wizards in America. One small issue I have with it, is that I didn't get that much into Mary Lou Barebone's character as I wanted to, I don't think it was the actress, but rather that there wasn't that much done with her that connected with anyone beyond Credence. That connection with Tina, while a good way to try and create more ties between the two stories, felt too superficial and coincidental, if they hadn't met before, the movie would be no different. But that's a minor issue.
Now, as for the finale, this is where the two stories finally converge, and despite how much I've been saying that they're disconnected throughout the movie, their merging is well done. I like Newt's talk with Credence very much, as I like Graves' intervention. The small fight between Newt and Graves was also great to see, and I found Farrell's enthusiastic wand movements to be actually fitting and not excessive. Tina's entrance, the surprise of the Aurors killing Credence with a shred of him escaping, and finally, Graves' speech with stellar acting from Farrell were all good moments. As for the obvious reveal to anyone who read the books that Graves was Grindelwald, I now realize that they weren't going for a shocking twist as even those new to the HP universe can smell some shadiness from Graves from his first scene, so I won't hold that against the movie. Against most people's opinion, I actually like the look of Grindelwald, if nothing else, the hair and eyes make him look unique. I am sad to see Farrell go, as I am a little disappointed that a Scandinavian actor was not cast, but I still believe that Depp can pull off a convincing and ruthless Grindelwald, if he wills himself to do so, and has good writing to help him, which I think he has. The plot convenience of the Thunderbird being able to Obliviate everyone does feel a lot like Deus Ex Machina, but at least the movie makes up for it emotionally as the acting from Dan Fogler is fantastic, delivering sadness, romance, and humor all at once. His final scene with Queenie and Newt's final scene with Tina leave the audience with a good feeling leaving the theater and it works perfectly for the story, giving it a very clear beginning, middle and end.
2 - Presentation:
Concerning the presentation of the movie itself, I'd say David Yates managed to capture the feel of 1920's New York in a satisfying way. While sometimes the green screens were a bit too obvious, the movie really succeded in the set design as the HP films always did. Stuart Craig once again demonstrates why he is one of the great masters of his craft. The costume design and makeup are also spectacular, adding to the establishment of the ambience of this setting, that's so necessary for the film to work. Like I said, I didn't always like the special effects, they were good for most of the creatures, the Bowtruckle, the Niffler, and the Demiguise probably looked the best. The Erumpent, the Occamy and the Thunderbird, a bit less so, probably because they were so big, which also didn't help for the audience to care about these creatures, the way they cared about Buckbeak, which was an animatronic, for example, but it wasn't terrible by any means. On the other hand, I loved the effects they had for the Obscurus, they looked really good. As I said, the backdrops often looked a bit green screenish, in the city, but also inside Newt's suitcase, however in the case of the latter, it worked well because everything there was mostly special effects, so the contrast was less noticeable. I also really liked how the film was shot. David Yates has really developed and knows how to shoot films in this universe, things feel jumpy and exciting but you always know where you are, especially in the scenes with the creatures. One shot I have to point out which is my favourite in the movie, is the one where the Obscurus holds senator Shaw up in the air, and the camera stops for two seconds, as he stands there hovering, before being plummeted into the ground, it was a really haunting shot and added so much to that scene. Finally, the score was also satisfying. This universe has always benefited from some great tracks, and while this one didn't have that many that I can point out, I did really like the opening theme as the title appeared, and the Grindelwald drums that came up when his presence was felt. The absolute best had to be Jacob's theme, though. It really fit both the setting and Jacob's character, and so felt like a nice contrast to the more magical tunes.
3 - Acting and Characterization:
Finally, I'll analyse how the movie fared in terms of the representation of the character, both on how they were portrayed by the actors, but also on how they were written:
Starting with our protagonist, Newt, as portrayed by Eddie Redmayne has received praise, but is not by any means considered the star character, which is understandable. Those who say his characterization was of a small scale in this movie have a point, as he is perhaps, the character that goes through the least emotional struggle throughout the story. You can see he does care about his creatures but he rarely shows those emotions. They do hint at a tortured past with Newt, related with Leta Lestrange, which I'm sure they'll develop in the future. And I really enjoyed Redmayne's outburst when Graves impounds his creatures, but I think that for the rest of the movie, Redmayne plays it down on purpose, as it's a part of Newt's character that he manages to keep his calm for the most part, and that's especially fitting, given that he's a Hufflepuff. As such, I rather liked the performance, Redmayne shows a man, that while a bit socially awkward and quiet, does have emotions and struggles like anyone, he just handles them in a more subdued manner, as many people do. It can be quite a challenge for an actor to pull that off, but I think Redmayne succeded. It will be interesting to see where they take a character like this in the future.
Moving on to the Goldstein sisters, Tina and Queenie, I also think they were very well portrayed by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol, respectively. They did have more to play than Redmayne as far as the personalities of their characters, but they didn't go overboard, Tina was not too controling and worried, and Queenie wasn't too whimsical, and both played off well with Newt and Jacob, forming a very entertaining quartet to watch. They did divide them a bit to much, pushing Tina/Newt and Queenie/Jacob, but the relationships, especially the latter, were adorable to watch and well executed by both actors and writers. I don't see what roles they might play in the future, but I definitely want both back, and I think that's a mark of a good performance.
Closing the hero quartet we have Jacob Kowalski, the No-Maj, as portrayed by Dan Fogler. I did say my favourite performances in the movie were from Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell in my opinion, but Dan Fogler is right up there with them. Certainly the most entertaining character to watch, Jacob is both the eyes of the audience and the comic relief and Fogler juggles those two so well, along with a few very emotional scenes, that he ends up delivering truly, the whole package, and with that coming from a No-Maj character, that's a real achievement. Despite Newt being the lead, Jacob probably has the greatest emotional journey in the movie, as expected given that he's learning about magic for the first time. But you don't realize how invested you are in him until the scene where he is forced to be obliviated, and then you too get quite emotional, and that's mostly due to Fogler himself who is not only relatable, he's extremely relatable. Closing the movie with him I think is a conscious and clever move from the film makers who understood what they had achieved with that character. One I absolutely want to see return, even though I don't know how.
Out of the hero quartet we have other major characters of course. Percival Graves, the Director of Magical Security is played by Colin Farrell who gives a truly great performance, I think. Menacing, yet quiet, he's able to show there's more to him from the first scene but he keeps you guessing all the way through, up to the point where he shows that Hallows amulet and then there was nothing else to be done (I didn't see the posters before the movie so I only noticed the amulet when it came on screen). His facial expressions are a wonder to watch, especially in his conversation with Newt and in his final speech, as is his line delivery, it almost reminded me of Alan Rickman as Snape, but more enthusiastic, which I think added much to the character. Like I sad, while integral to the story, I am sad to see him go. Nevertheless, his contribution to the franchise will be fondly remembered.
From Percival Graves we move to Credence, played by Ezra Miller, another major pillar of acting in this movie, Miller had a tough job in front of him. In a movie about magic and whimsy, he had to portray a tortured, beaten and destructive boy. It could be said that he played the part a bit too over the top, with a bunch of twitches that clearly hinted at him having some sort of darkness underneath, but I felt it worked, because this is an over the top world in itself. He had to do the most sudden mood changes in the movie, and that I think was a hard challenge that Miller pulled off incredibly well in my opinion. Another one of my favourite shots in the movie, is the one where while Graves is fighting Newt, the camera focuses on Credence, crying uncontrolably, as he sucumbs to the Obscurus, a moment that hit me so hard, I totally sided with Graves when he gave his speech. It was truly the excelent counterpart to such a creative conceit.
Finally, I'll touch on the characters of Seraphina Picquery and Mary Lou Barebone. I put them together because they are more superfluous than the rest of the cast, but also because I found them to be a little lacking in terms of successful characterization, however, in my opinion by little fault of the actresses, and more because of how the characters were written. Mary, while set-up as more of a blind cultist than an angry woman, wasn't done enough with, her only purpose in the story was to torture Credence, just like senator Shaw. Seraphina Picquery also disapointed me. The HP universe is no stranger to the government official that is not on the side of evil, but not on the side of the heroes, however Picquery went too far to the point where she became truly unlikable, and I don't think that was the point. She tells Tina to get out of the investigative department, but later criticizes her for not reporting Newt, something she actually tried to do. And later, she outright orders the killing of an Obscurus claiming it's because he broke the law, even though she should know that an Obscurus, not only is mostly uncontrolable, but also that it's something that manifests itself in KIDS! She is downright evil, and yet only Grindelwald (the "evil" character) calls her out on it. No wonder I sided with him.
Thoughts on the Future and Conclusion:
Like I said in the beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by finding that this felt like a fully realised story with a beginning, middle and end. However, this makes me incredibly curious about how the next movies in the franchise will pick up the story after this installment. I expect the movies will build up to the eventual defeat of Grindelwald at the hands of Dumbledore, but I question what role Newt and company will have until then, if any. It seems clear that they'll reappear as the ending sets up more storylines for Newt and Leta Lestrange as well as his relationship with Tina, and Jacob also appears to recover from the Obliviate charm in his final scene. Moreover, Grindelwald's words to Newt seem random, as if only he is supposed to know what they mean, which means he'll have to explain that as well. Despite all of these set-ups, I still want to see how they're all dragged back into the hunt for Grindelwald as none seem to have any reason to, besides Tina as an Auror, and also how Credence's apparent escape will come back to influence the story.
As it stands, like I said, I found this to be a very welcome addition to the Harry Potter mythos, an excellent basis for a promising franchise that puts forward new lovable characters that I'm excited to see develop and face new interesting challenges in posterior stories. The script format for the stories seems to work well, arguably even better, and I hope Rowling continues to be at the helm of these creations, because it's in the stories and characters that this universe lives and dies. My gripes with the plot, are easily fixed with a few changes and rewrites, and they're mostly with the structure, and not with the stories themselves. While David Yates is a competent director, and already announced to direct the rest of the franchise, I wouldn't mind a change. As that probably won't happen, I'm still satisfied, he knows this universe better than most, and I still see him developing over the course of these films. As I see it, HP fans can leave 2016 on a positive note. Even though I found The Cursed Child to be somewhat underwhelming, Fantastic Beasts more than made up for it. Here's hoping for more great explorations of this wonderful universe.
What did you think of the movie? Was this a worthy new installment in the HP universe in your opinion? Do you think this franchise his headed in a good direction? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and as always, thank you for reading.