Recommended Viewing Situation:
Fully clad in the appropriate House robes, with a selection of treats from the Hogwarts Express trolley and a foaming mug of Butterbeer.
Running Time: 133 minutes.
Format: Digital Film on an Arri Alexa XT Studio, Panavision E- and G-Series Lense.
Director: David Yates.
Writer: J.K. Rowling.
Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot.
With a flash, bang and a presumably large special effects budget, the next instalment of the Harry Potter franchise has arrived on our screens. Boasting a screenplay by JK Rowling herself, and the return of David Yates, the director of the last four Harry Potters, this initial offering from the series (now extended from three to five films) hits the ground running straight from the beginning. A whirlwind tour through wizarding newspapers gives us the gist of what’s happening in the wizarding world circa 1920. There’s a Dark wizard on the loose (shock horror) in the form of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), Dumbledore’s old friend/nemesis, who, we are told, is attempting to overthrow the delicate balance between wizards and No-Majs (the American word for Muggle) in order to create a world ruled by wizards. So far so familiar, but Fantastic Beasts does offer us something fresh in the form of our new audience surrogate, Newt Scamander. Deftly portrayed by Eddie Redmayne channelling his best ‘Matt Smith as Doctor Who’ vibes, Newt represents a jumping off point from the clueless Harry in the main series, as he seems adept and at ease in the wizarding world, much like the fan base for this film. It’s telling that the deuteragonist, Jacob (Dan Fogler), is one of the aforementioned No-Majs, leaving at least one character that people who perhaps don’t have a Pottermore account can relate to.
This works reasonably well for the film, as there’s little to no hand-holding regarding the world-building. Rowling goes full throttle, dropping us into a land that resembles that of the main series, with a layer of 1920s American aesthetics over the top, most prominent in a small portion of the film set in a magical speakeasy. This ties into a significantly darker subplot involving a new group of intolerant villains, the Second Salemers, a fringe group of No-Majs who proselytise about a dangerous group of underground wizards. It’s an interesting choice to replace Voldemort’s magically proficient Death Eaters with this group, as it transforms most of the dramatic tension from a straight-up fight between equals to a moral struggle within Newt’s small band of friends, who must operate with some modicum of restraint when it comes to confronting them.
The special effects are decent if not reminiscent of the original films. Unfortunately, the movie has been released in 3D, which is initially used to create a nice sense of depth in certain scenes, but guarantees several of those annoying shots where a small element moves straight across the frame in order to achieve one of those ‘eye-popping’ 3D moments, which I suspect will play very badly on the 2D version and home release. The story itself reflects on the main themes of Harry Potter very well, hitting the ‘intolerance is bad’ angle from both wizard and No-Maj perspectives, and wraps itself up pretty neatly, without much in the way of a sequel hook, which was a genuine shock. Sadly, the shoehorned-in references to the ‘other films’ feel a little jarring at times. But, the main players all turn in solid performances, with extra points to Dan Fogler, who transcends his boorish performances of the past to shine as Jacob.
Essentially, it’s a cash-grab done right and I must admit it left me (a lapsed fan of the book series who never really got on with the film adaptations) Googling tickets to the theme park. It remains to be seen if the series can overcome its roots and become its own beast, so to speak, but I remain cautiously optimistic.