|'Newt Scamander, arguably one of the least interesting characters ever to come from Rowling's imagination'.|
As one of the most financially - if not always critically - successful cinematic franchises of the 21st Century, it should have come as a surprise to no one that it would take a lot more than reaching the end of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novel series to stop Warner Bros. from making more magic-fuelled movies. Enter Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the first in a planned five-part prequel series to the Potter films and the ninth entry in an overarching franchise the studio now calls "J. K. Rowling's Wizarding World". Yes, whether you like it or not, Harry Potter has become just one character in the growing dramatis personae of yet another multi-million-dollar cinematic universe.
As the opening chapter in a new story, Fantastic Beasts is about as good as it was ever going to be, showcasing both the opportunities and the pitfalls of the early stages of universe expansion on the big screen. There are inescapable problems here, perhaps the most critical of all being protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), arguably one of the least interesting characters ever to come from Rowling's imagination. Newt is a personality vacuum, and Redmayne's stilted performance is nowhere near strong enough to lift him out of his bland foundations. As such, the character's comic scenes are rendered uncomfortably awkward whilst the attempted sparks of romance between Newt and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) largely fall flat.
The narrative too struggles in the same way as some of the weaker entries in the original Potter series, with too many elements which Rowling as screenwriter fails to develop satisfyingly. A subplot involving newspaper mogul Henry Shaw Sr. (Jon Voight) and his sons Henry Jr. (Josh Cowdery) and Langdon (Ronan Raftery) is particularly wafer thin. Rowling's script also wavers in authenticity here and there: having gone to some lengths to emphasise that transatlantic wizards use the term "No-Maj" rather than "Muggle" to describe non-magical folk, having an American character refer to the "toilet" instead of the "bathroom" feels both jarring and amateurish.
The film essentially lives or dies by its ability to transport the audience back into the familiar cinematic realisation of the magical universe built up over the previous eight films, and it's here where Fantastic Beasts thankfully shines consistently. Returning to direct after helming the closing half of the Potter series, David Yates arguably understands how to bring Rowling's extraordinary world to life on the big screen better than anyone. Settings such as the MACUSA headquarters are brilliantly realised with fond recollections of Gringotts and the Ministry Of Magic from Yates' previous efforts. Whilst they are mostly relegated to sideshow status, the beasts of the title also provide much of the film's wonder and amusement, with the platypus-like Niffler surely destined to become a firm favourite for many.
The flimsy plotting and characterisation is explained (but not excused) through confirmation in the final act that Fantastic Beasts is merely a precursor for the story that Rowling really wants to tell: that of the rise of previously peripheral Potter character Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). The numerous name checks throughout suggest that a whole film of scene-setting will hopefully be worth it in the long run for devoted fans, but that still leaves this opening chapter to be continually propped up by its success in evoking nostalgia for a film series which only concluded five years ago.