Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Some people have really loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I don’t love it but what it is is a perfectly adequate Harry Potter anthology movie. It follows Newt Scamander, a Hogwarts expulsee, played by Eddie Redmayne, (The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl), who moves to America to learn about all the magical creatures one can find there, or so he may say.
There was one point at which the original Harry Potter films were going to be made by the one, the only Terry Gilliam, (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brazil), as it happens the first two ended up being made by Christopher Columbus, (Pixels, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire), who I actually very much like, he might be admittedly a good but very mainstream director but he did write Gremlins and The Goonies. As much as I like those early films can you imagine if they had that Time Bandits feel of Gilliam’s family work? This film comes to us from David Yates, best known for the last few Harry Potter films. Probably the most technically accomplished effort, with the most film-making verve is probably the one from Alfonso Cuarón, (Gravity, Children of Men), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The reason I’ve had this little tangent is that David Yates has always seemed to me a bit of an industrial filmmaker for hire, especially with his recent Harry Potter break The Legend of Tarzan. However Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, (typing that’s going to get irritating), does have that Gilliamesque sense of wonder and sort of joi de vivre and joy and passion for film making also.
This film, (easy workaround I think), combines the childish sense of knockabout fun of those first three movies and the darkness of the last few, and the film is surprisingly dark, warning to parents; it is a strong 12A. I mean the last non-horror film in recent memory to reference The Omen was Looper and that was a definite 15, and this film is that dark tonally. I would not be surprised if we saw a similar set of complaints to The Dark Knight. Despite that darkness, when the film is wondrous and fantastical it really does wonderful and fantastical. Kids will be awed at the wonderful design of all the various creatures and it does contrast with the darker subplot rather nicely. Whatever else I may have to say that is the real draw of the film, the fantasy element and the film does it rather well.
That being said, the thing that’s so great about a lot of Gilliam films is that he has a way with effects to make them really immersive. This film has a similar look to its effects as something like Doctor Strange, which I said should win the VFX Oscar this year, but they never had to animate living things, new animal creations. This film does and it looks a bit naff, and when we have actually the Harry Potter films, and actually the David Yates Harry Potter films, in which the animation of the animals is really incredible and really immersive, there is no excuse for it looking, and I’m sorry but it’s true, like the dinosaurs in Transformers: Age of Extinction.
In terms of performances, Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly good casting, I mean he’s the obvious choice for this character but whilst I normally find him incredibly obnoxious and irritating, here, he seems oddly charming, and honest, and not at all arch and typical-British-classically-trained-actor which he normally comes off as. His character is great as well, I mean someone who identifies more with animals than people, how can one not empathise? Colin Farrell, (In Bruges), and Ezra Miller, (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), both form the meat of the more adult plot line and they’re both the best actors in the film I think, they’re the ones with the most gravitas, their plot line seems resolved at the end and I really hope they both come back for sequels because they are simply great. The joys in terms of really fun, endearing characters as we’ve come to expect from Harry Potter can be found in what is surely a breakout performance from Dan Fogler, (Kung Fu Panda), playing Kowalski, who is the best thing about any scene he’s in because he’s great. Johnny Depp shows up at the end and he’s just terrible for all the 5 seconds he’s on screen. He does the thing he does in Tim Burton films like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Ed Wood or Terry Gilliam films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of being very arch and theatrical, and it works in those films because they know exactly how to sculpt his performances because their films are very visually precise, and it’s just not the same in this film. Which to reference a Gilliam saying is slightly more camel than horse than it would like to be.
Although it’s not perfect, definitely not perfect, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them serves up sufficient meat for both adults and children to qualify as a perfectly fine Harry Potter prequel, although I’d like it to have more physicality. It won’t stay with you in the way some Harry Potter films do but it is, in the end it’s own franchise and it’s not like the early Potter films stayed in your mind, although an 11 year old might feel differently.