Film review | Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Beast of a blockbuster done right

JK Rowling herself makes a more than competent screenwriting debut with a story reverse-engineered from her original boy wizard saga • 3/5

Beastmaster: Eddie Redmayne mumbles his way through this fast-paced and dazzling Harry Potter spinoff
Beastmaster: Eddie Redmayne mumbles his way through this fast-paced and dazzling Harry Potter spinoff

The latest addition in the Harry Potter franchise – a gift that keeps on giving, to be sure – sounds like the most cynical project imaginable, when presented on paper. A story reverse-engineered from a glorified artefact in JK Rowling’s original boy wizard saga, it has now been announced that a trilogy will be crafted out of the same – rather scant – source material, with Rowling herself on screenwriting duties. 

The last time something similar happened was with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy: an ill-advised traipse back to Middle Earth resulted in a rushed, over-stretched and poorly executed attempt at replicating the magic of Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy by over-stretching and over-stuffing JRR Tolkien’s slim children’s book. 

Thankfully, however, Rowling herself makes a more than competent screenwriting debut, while Potter stalwart David Yeats directs the film as a mini-epic in its own right; with a colourful, vivacious and magical touch that invites enough darkness in to ensure that audiences of all ages will sit up and take notice.

We are introduced to the mumbling and reserved wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – author of the titular book, later on to be employed as a Hogwarts textbook by Harry Potter and his classmates – as he heads to Arizona via New York. But his stay at the Big Apple is prolonged when he crosses paths with anti-witchcraft campaigner Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) of the New Salem Philantrophic Society, whom he soon learns are on an ideological warpath for hearts and minds following a supernatural incident that has ravaged the city and left its wizarding community fearful of exposure. As the beast-collector Scamander scrambles for the monsters that escape from his bottomless suitcase and into the big city – picking up the hapless aspiring baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) in his wake.

Gold-digger: The thieving Niffler
Gold-digger: The thieving Niffler

All the while, the disgraced wizard Porpentina (Samantha Morton) tries to take Scamander in for smuggling ‘problematic’ creatures into New York and endangering the wizard community’s anonymity… but the real trouble lies just out of their vision, as the forces of light and darkness position themselves for the ultimate confrontation. 

Because Rowling is Rowling – i.e., the author of one of the most consistently successful books-to-film phenomena this side of James Bond – she gets away with a lot on her first run as a screenwriter. So that an otherwise scant story – an extended series of case sequences while an encroaching evil bubbles in the background – both manages to move at a breakneck pace while also feeling overstuffed with characters and a wealth of backstory elements from the extended Potterverse. 

Not that this derails the film too much. An old hand at bringing Rowling’s universe to the big screen, Yeats marshals the entire movable feast in a way that’s both easy to understand – shame about Redmayne’s mumbling though – and dazzling to observe. By turns cute, awe-inspiring and terrifying, the creatures alone are ‘worth the price of admission’… especially given that the 3D effect is utilised to the fullest to bring out their peculiarities and help the spectacle along (instead of simply being a money-sucking gimmick). 

Though the main plot and sub-plot are in a constant battle for supremacy in a way that only adds to the confusion – Scamander is occupying a minor role in what turns out to be a pretty cataclysmic event, but we’re following him around anyway – and while the climax hinges on a somewhat hackneyed iteration of the return of the repressed via magic, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is also a rare case of a franchise reboot being done right. 

Yeats and Rowling short-circuit the essential cynicism of the entire enterprise – i.e., the film is being made primarily because the Harry Potter films made a boatload of money – and create something that not only stands on its own two feet but that also has a zany, child-like enthusiasm to it. And that’s how you banish cynicism.