A very English wizard chases magical beasties in 1920s New York.
The wizarding world is back. Some five years and change after The Deathly Hallows Part 2 signalled Harry’s last adventure, J.K. Rowling has conjured up a new tale, itself the beginning of a five film saga.
Fantastic Beasts is the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who has mislaid some creatures and has to track them down. Meanwhile, tensions between the wizard and human communities are rising and it’s likely to all come to a head.
With a script by J.K. Rowling and direction from David Yates (who helmed four Potter films) there’s plenty of wizardy DNA here, and the thrill of hearing John Williams' iconic theme over the Warner Bros logo really brought me back.
But this is also quite a different film in the setting and the fact that it’s a story of grown ups. That adds a refreshing edge to the picture, and allows it to tease out some notions of tolerance and xenophobia in some small but interesting ways.
Mostly this is a huge budget event film that’s designed to entertain on a global scale. And it accomplishes the task in amiable enough fashion. Yates and co have a dark story to tell but they’ve also got plenty of humour along the way, even if much of it requires leaning on a series of cute and cuter CG creatures.
They really are the star of the show, which is probably fitting given the title. A thieving platypus-thing was probably my favourite but there’s plenty to like and it has to be said that the effects work is truly stunning, something which wasn’t always true of the Potter series.
Next to those very lovely beasties, the cast doesn’t have a lot to do. It doesn’t help that Rowling’s writing leaves them with little character and more than a few naff lines. Backstory is all but non-existent and the narrative itself kind of spirals around without any real impetus.
The cast all do their thing gamely enough. Redmayne is a bit of a ginger quasimodo but his awkwardness is well matched by Katerine Waterston’s rather ditsy performance. Dan Fogler gets most of the best moments, Ezra Miller looks great in a suit, Colin Farrell has a lovely jacket and Jon Voight looks surprised he was allowed out of his box.
By the end, those various pieces are in place with a few twists and turns along the way. Then it’s time for a bit of a CG fest which might have been more emotional if we had a little time to get to know the characters.Even elements like James Newton Howard's score feel a little flat.
After six features as director Yates’ direction still seems workmanlike at best. There’s little sense of style or verve, with the camera placed in the most obvious position while the actors do their thing. And while there are some marvellous images on display, what’s missing is a consistent sense of wonder or, quite honestly, magic.
I’d love to see a new filmmaker given a chance to dive into this wizarding world but Yates has been confirmed to helm all five features in this new series. Perhaps he just fits into the model Rowling and Warner Bros want for this universe.
Fantastic Beasts is mostly good fun if rather slight. The 133 minute running time only feels a little inflated (there’s a rhino-thing scene I’d lift entirely) and the comedy lands more squarely than most of the Harry Potter series. Warner Bros has a sure fire hit on their hands, pretty much regardless of any criticism. I just hope there’s a little more character development and story as this new saga continues.