Before we talk about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, let’s talk about Harry Potter. If you’ve somehow been living under a rock for the last 20 or so years, it’s the story of a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and maybe the chosen one. He goes to a magical boarding school, learns how to ride a broomstick, perform magic and all sorts of cool stuff. There’s angst, romance, a dark wizard version of Hitler and final showdowns full of amazing quips. After seven books, eight films and two charity tie-in novels (without even mentioning the colouring books, various editions, illustrated editions and more), that J.K. Rowling had said just about all there was to say about the world of Harry Potter.
You’d be wrong.
After Pottermore (where yours truly was naturally sorted in Slytherin), there came Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play (and screenplay) that involves time travel, children of characters who clearly had too much time on their hands, and a faint whiff of the word ‘sellout’. It still sold out and as far as I can tell, fans of the series are split right down between the whole sellout issue and thinking that this is a worthwhile addition to the canon. Which leads me nicely to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
The first in a projected 5 film series, it follows the adventures of one Newt Scamander, a magizoologist who acts a little bit like a Pokemon trainer, in that he wants to catch them all (for the purposes of knowledge and understanding rather than, say, to fight other wizards). Set roughly 70 years before the events of the Harry Potter novels, the film stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt, with Colin Firth, Ron Perlman, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller and Alison Sudol rounding off the main cast. Johnnie Depp makes a cameo appearance as the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald and for once he’s not actually trying to come across as Jack Sparrow playing Johnnie Depp playing another character. The film is set in New York in the 1920s, with Newt arriving in the US en route to Arizona. When a case of swapped suitcases unleashes some of his more exotic stowaways in the city, Newt finds himself under the glare of the Magical Congress of the United States of America and soon can’t seem to escape the eagle-eyed Auror Tina Goldstein or her sister. From there it’s one mishap after another as he becomes embroiled in a sinister plot to set free an Obscurus (a destructive magical parasite which thrives on children forced to suppress their magical abilities). Behind it all, it seems, is Gellert Grindelwald, the future rival of Albus Dumbledore and a man who wants to completely enslave non-magical people (Muggles in the Harry Potter films, No-Maj to the American wizarding world).
The film itself is engaging, if at times rushed, and manages to set the scene quite well for what’s to follow. There is a lot there for fans of the original Harry Potter series (from the musical theme to the creatures that Newt hides in his suitcase) and enough for new fans to not feel lost at sea (I went to see this with both a hardcore fan like me and someone whose exposure to Harry Potter only extends to the first six films). It works well as an origin story, though at times it does feel a bit all over the place, not quite managing to strike that perfect magical tone that the first Harry Potter film achieved. It sets up the conflict and its main characters, it introduces a different magical society and Newt makes for a very different protagonist to Harry: slightly weird, slightly off and introverted but clearly dedicated to being the best magizoologist he can be. It’s clear that the wider conflict will be between Dumbledore and Gridelwald, but I’m cautiously optimistic about Newt’s role in this.
My verdict? Definitely one to pick up when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray in March, and a series to keep an eye out in the years to come.