When I was dragged to the theater last weekend, my expectations for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” were extremely low. While I enjoyed the proper “Potter” films, my obsession over the books had waned by the time the money-grubbing finale was split into two films in 2010 and 2011. Unexpectedly, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” obliterates the money-factory mold that came before it and serves as one of the best “Potter” films of all.
“Harry Potter” defined the formula for both young adult book and film series in one fell swoop—while I’m amazed by how efficiently the magical series was monetized, it also brought about some extremely bland films that barely captured the beauty and magic of the source material. Much of my generation learned to read with “Harry Potter” and to see the films turned into a cash cow with little care was disheartening to say the least.
At the time of the early “Potter” films, I was truly impressed by the retelling, but by movie five, “The Order of the Phoenix,” the film series had severely distanced itself from the books in terms of quality. In my opinion, the best film in the series was the third, “The Prisoner of Azkaban” as directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the renowned director of “Children of Men” and “Gravity.” After that film, the “Potter” series seemed to settle into a cookie-cutter formula of playing it extremely safe and taming any of the books darker moments. I hate to blame this distillation on one person, but it coincided directly with David Yates’ arrival as director of the remaining four films. A relative unknown before leading the “Potter” films to their conclusion, Yates played it extremely safe to cement his legacy as the person who brought “Potter” to the big screen. While I can’t criticize Yate’s conservative strategy, three other directors had already been canned; I can criticize how neutered the series had become. Perhaps this was a decision by the producers; hire an unknown director and tell him how to safely bring the cash cow to pasture.
Despite all of this, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” kept me spellbound and proved that Yates is truly an artist. Unhindered by the sacred “Potter” texts, Yates flexes his creative muscles and builds a wholly unique and beautiful world that, in my opinion, surpasses the proper “Potter” films while falling into some familiar tropes of big budget, pop films.
Opening on a newsreel, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” quickly establishes that its story takes place decades before Harry Potter is alive. A new villain, Gellert Grindelwald, quickly anchors the 1920s setting and the story is immediately given weight. Even if you weren’t lucky enough to avoid the huge marketing push before the film, I can’t recall any of the trailers mentioning Grindelwald; diehard fans will certainly recognize the name, but this was a refreshing surprise given that “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is portrayed as a light fairytale in much of its promotional materials. It is rare that a modern movie can keep any of its secrets, but this reveal was a genuine curveball to me.
Most notably, I did not miss any of the main “Potter” cast because the actors in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” are infinitely stronger. Other than Daniel Radcliffe and, to a lesser extent, Emma Watson, none of the main “Potter” cast have made acting careers for themselves. Chosen at a young age for their roles, the “Potter” trio was typecast before their careers even began. In my opinion, the lack of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint is a huge positive for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them;” more mature actors are given a chance to shine in this magical world and the film is better off for it.
In particular, Eddie Redmayne shines as the main character, Newt Scamander. If you have not seen Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawkings in “The Theory of Everything,” you should stop reading this article and watch it immediately. After “The Theory of Everything” and “The Danish Girl,” Redmayne has quickly become a household name and he deserves all of the praise that he’s been given. As Scamander, Redmayne gives a highly nuanced performance without much of the drama found in his previous Oscar-winning and –nominated films. Even still, Newt Scamander feels like a real person despite his briefcase filled with monsters; Redmayne portrays a man who feels more comfortable with beasts than with people and the result is incredibly humanizing. Don’t expect any profound outbursts by Redmayne, but his bumbling and anti-social portrayal of Newt Scamander is easily the best acting performance in “Potter” history—considering that the late, great Alan Rickman portrayed Professor Snape in the “Potter” films, this is no small feat. As the core of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” Redmayne powerfully conveys his love for beasts and it is difficult for the audience to think otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, Colin Farrell continues his streak of stellar acting performances. With season two of “True Detective,” Farrell jumped back into the acting scene with the best performance of that generally terrible season; without Farrell, I cannot imagine just how horrible “True Detective” season two could have been. In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” Farrell plays what is essentially a magical cop, also known as an Auror, and he is able to channel his darkness from “True Detective” to a very minute degree. The result of his performance is a steely man of justice who is portrayed as equally judicious and dangerous.
It wouldn’t be fair to not mention Ezra Miller as Credence. I can’t say that I’ve seen Miller’s other work, but he is clearly an up and coming actor—he has been cast as The Flash in DC’s cinematic universe after all. While I am not sure if Miller is the correct choice for The Flash, he portrays a tormented, creepy young man with relative ease. With baggy clothing, pale white skin, and a horrendous bowl cut, Miller brings a new level of unease and darkness that was previously unavailable in the “Potter” films. Initially a calm yet dangerous fanatic, Miller is eventually given his chance to shine as Credence becomes more unhinged throughout the film.
Learning the Dark Arts
Perhaps one of the most understated positives of the film is how well 1920s New York City is portrayed. The city is absolutely beautiful and the juxtaposition of historical New York with magical creatures is nothing short of a visual feast. In the five years since the final “Potter” film, special effects have evolved leaps and bounds above what was previously possible and the result here is, for the most part, the pinnacle of green screen trickery.
Despite the beautiful visuals of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” darkness is pervasive throughout the film. While the “Potter” movies and books were set in England, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” brings the story to America for the first time. Unlike in England, the relationship between the magical community and non-magical people is severely strained due to the Salem witch trials and subsequent banishment of magical people; therein lies the crux of the film, Newt Scamander’s beasts escape from his suitcase and he must capture them before they harm the citizens of New York and inadvertently spark a war.
Therefore, the film’s fun comes from Scamander trying to capture the beasts, but the implications of failure are dire. In addition, my favorite dark element of the film is the new American “cult” known as the Second Salemers. These not-so-subtle symbols of religious extremists hate the magic folk and would like to burn and stone them at any moment. Credence, as played by Ezra Miller, is one of these individuals and their plight is sprinkled throughout the film. In my opinion, the Second Salemers are the most salient and relevant element of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” as it provides some social commentary that was missing in the previous “Potter” outings.
A Fantastic New Series?
Despite all of my gushing, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is not without its mistakes. The end of the film falls into the trap where a massive, “epic” battle ensues, but the stakes are not high. In addition, there is a cameo at the end, which was certainly intended as a positive surprise, but for me it was a hindrance and makes me worried for the future of the series.
At this point, the “Fantastic Beasts” series is set to run through five movies. Whether or not the films can retain the quality of this first film, remains to be seen, but Eddie Redmayne is extremely positive grounding force. While I hope this new series does not fall into the same trap as the “Potter” films, at least we have a magical romp that proves just how fantastic and dark J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world can be.