Director: David Yates
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Regardless of the self-evident motives Warner Bros have, the return of J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world to the big screen doesn’t just feel like a promise of welcome revisit, but close to an act of civic duty: man, do we ever need some real invention and fun at the moment, given the tawdriness of current political life and the dismal survey that has been this year’s blockbuster “entertainment.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proposes to fill the void. The title, as fans of Rowling’s original novels surely know, comes from the standard-issue textbook given to Hogwarts students in magizoology, a guide to the various species of magic animal written by one Newt Scamander. Some years ago, before finishing the original novel cycle, Rowling, produced a mock version purporting to be Harry Potter’s personal edition of the standard handbook as a charity project. Although it includes no plot or characters, that book provides the seed for a revisit and expansion of Rowling’s imaginary universe, five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 set the seal on the original series of adaptations. The setting signals a reorientation of expectations and makes room to introduce some new elements to the rich, but already well-exploited zones of Rowling’s fantasy, like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and the general Dickensian pokiness of her magic Britain. So, the scene has shifted to New York in the 1920s, a realm of melting-pot energy and soaring art-deco ambition.
Oscar-winning It-boy Eddie Redmayne is cast as Scamander himself, who steps off a passenger liner in the New World carrying a battered piece of luggage with dodgy locks. Thanks to a magic device that makes the suitcase interior seem utterly humdrum, Newt passes through customs and arrives in a city straining from the wealth of human life it contains and now wracked by manifestations of some unseen, but very potently destructive entity. Very quickly, Newt’s propensity for collecting strange creatures and his hazy, eccentric, dismissive attitude for official mores starts to get him in trouble. His suitcase, much like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, is almost a world unto itself on the inside, a voluminous mobile zoo where he keeps the many magical animals he studies and nurtures. One of the creatures kept there, a Niffler, resembles an anthropomorphic, kleptomaniacal platypus. This critter slips out whilst Newt is distracted and causes havoc in a bank, forcing Newt to hunt for him high and low. On the search, Newt encounters a portly factory worker and veteran, Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who’s in the bank to petition for a loan to open a bakery. Kowalski is swept up in Newt’s attempt to corner the Niffler in the vault and freaks out as he’s subjected to the stomach-churning, physics-twisting arts of apparating.
Meanwhile, Newt’s haphazard tracking techniques attract the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who works for the local equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA). She arrests him and drags him in to be judged by the MACUSA President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). But Tina has recently been demoted from her former rank of Auror, a hunter of malign wizards, to mere functionary. Picquery promptly ejects her and Newt, as more important matters are troubling the city. Europe has been rocked by the disappearance of Grindelwald, the dark wizard whose campaign to assert the superiority of magic kind and destabilise the old solution of remaining hidden within the larger human world is sending shockwaves through the whole wizarding community. A MACUSA operative, Graves (Colin Farrell), is taking an increasingly strict, even ruthless line against any dangers. On the opposite side, a street preacher and campaigner, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leads an organisation called the New Salemites, dedicated to making people at large aware of the existence of magic folk and their danger as unholy beings. Newt soon finds that his suitcase has been accidentally swapped for Kowalski’s, as he finds the one he carries is loaded up with the would-be baker’s pastry samples.
Fantastic Beasts sees Rowling debuting as a screenwriter, and David Yates, who handled the last four Harry Potter films, returning to maintain the brand standard. This is his second big-budget film for the year, after The Legend of Tarzan, another attempt to revive a franchise hallowed in pop culture, albeit a much older one. Rowling here is adapting her familiar talents as a fount of such lore and the elegant sprawl of her plotting from the leisurely pace of the printed page to the chop-chop wont of big cinema, but not without hesitations. Rowling’s talents at setting up complex story elements and making them rebound off each other like a pinball game are still in evidence in the early sequences, as Newt is first distracted from his ultimate goal in New York by one of Barebone’s speeches, which Tina is also watching, as keeping an eye on the witch hunter was her job and the cause of her losing it. Newt and Kowalski both serve to a degree as audience surrogates confronted with a fresh dimension of experience, as Kowalski is drawn into working with Newt to recapture the animals he accidentally sets loose. Newt and Kowalski soon bond, as both are outsiders defined by difficult pasts and an alienated present. Both men served in the Great War, if in radically different ways—Kowalski as doughboy and Newt fighting with dragons on the Russian front. Kowalski feels cut off from the general flow of life because he wasn’t able to come home until 1924, and he wants to pursue his personal, attentive craft-art for people in the face of industrialism’s new impersonal plenty. Newt is uneasy around people and distracted, possibly even damaged, borderline dismissive of not just wizarding bureaucracy but also of humans in general, whom he describes as the most vicious animals on the planet.
The men also find themselves taken under the wing of Tina, who starts to feel a responsibility to keep Newt out of trouble, and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The sisters give the men a place to stay, in their pokey shared apartment. Queenie, who has the ability to read minds, is drawn to Kowalski, who, in spite of his unprepossessing exterior, quickly proves to be one of the most forthright men she’s ever met. Although sworn to remain in the sisters’ apartment, Newt soon leads Kowalski out into the New York night to track down the animals that escaped the suitcase, including Niffler for the second time, a gigantic rhinoceroslike creature called an Erumpent that’s searching for a mate, and a snakelike creature that grows and shrinks according to the available space in which it finds itself. The Niffler likes to steal any kind of shiny object, filling up a pouch with endless amounts of bright baubles, and Newt finds it trying to hide in plain sight in a jeweller’s window, striking a pose like a stuffed mascot. Chasing down the Erumpent proves a more arduous task. Newt tries to entice it away from impending union with a bewildered hippo in the Central Park Zoo by daubing himself with scent and performing a mating dance, only for Kowalski to spill some of the scent on himself. The beast chases after him instead, resulting in a chaotic dance upon the frozen lake as Newt tries to restore it into his own zoo inside the suitcase. That place, Kowalski learns from the inside, contains many more of Newt’s rare friends, including a colossal flying birdlike creature that is the real reason he’s come to America—he wants to release it in the wilds of Arizona. He also has a strange, amorphous ball of dark, parasitical energy called an Obscurus, something he warns Kowalski to stay away from.
When sticking to this stuff, Fantastic Beasts is great fun. Yates bridges the ingenuity of Rowling’s conceptual imagination and stages the realisation of it as the hapless humans, magic and nonmagic alike, chase after these creatures. Here, Fantastic Beasts locates the spirit of the likes of Looney Tunes and classic slapstick comedy, a percussive physicality and wiseacre absurdity that gives an unmistakably New World inflection to the traditionally English basis of Rowling’s work, in the ethos of the Great British Eccentric and the traditions of pantomime, Victoriana fantasy fiction, and the comedy of manners in the Ealing style. Perhaps the clearest conflation of the two is apparent during the sequence when Newt tries to seduce the Erumpent, performing his mating dance in a series of ridiculous ritual gestures, moving with the total self-seriousness of a scientific nerd who has dedicated his life to learning the communication of species everyone else recoils from, Doctor Doolittle and Jane Goodall and Harpo Marx colluding in one body. Setting this sequence in Central Park, that islet of nature with its not-so-faint whisper of the wild amidst modernity’s first supercity, gives the film a note of unexpected kinship with a host of works—the big-city hauntings of Cat People (1941) and Portrait of Jennie (1945), the juvenile adventures of Madeline and the heroines of The World of Henry Orient (1964) and even Snoopy’s dance upon the Central Park ice in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). Newt’s problems with human sociability and preference for animals weirdly, but aptly echoes Paul Schrader’s bizarre remake of Cat People (1982), and that’s the only concept that’s strayed in from the darker wing of fantastic fiction, as the thrust of the real plot, which takes time to come into focus, has a certain kinship with both Carrie (1976) and The Brood (1978).
Rowling’s gift for conjuring characters who appeal in spite of, and because of, their difficulty in presenting a pleasing face to the world is thankfully still strong here, as well as her ability to generate an effervescent emotional tone. There’s a quality of innocence to our heroes, in spite of their grown-up emotions and psyches, a connection with the classic protagonists of this universe: Kowalski is reminiscent of Ron Weasley in his awkward desire to prove himself and natural awe in the presence of femininity, whilst Newt suggests Harry if he’d emerged from his adventures with a bout of PTSD. Redmayne, fresh off winning laurels for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in the execrable The Theory of Everything (2014), thankfully judges his performance as Newt well, throwing in a dash of Hugh Grant’s signature hem-haw charm along with signs of a deeper estrangement, wincing and averting his gaze even as he converses with people with whom he seems to feel accord, but charged with purpose and energy when engaged with his creatures. Waterston, who gained deserved appreciation for her breakthrough performance in Inherent Vice (2014), is even better as Tina, who, with floppy flapper hat perched above button nose and lanky limbs, is a talent whose enthusiasm and conscientiousness sometimes outpace her good sense, not as shaky in society as Newt, but not quite a good fit either. But it’s Sudol who steals the film with her witty melange of period types, a chatty flirt and good-natured open book who, ironically, has everyone else’s thoughts open to her, awaiting the right person nice enough for her to be nice to: the way Sudol says the line, “But we made them cocoa!” is almost enough to paper over many a fault.
Fantastic Beasts runs into trouble, however, when it tries to broaden its scope beyond the knockabout adventures of Newt and his hapless team. The naming of certain phenomenon suggests an awareness of the American style of such things—muggles are called no-majs in a clipped, contemptuous abbreviation rather than allusive wordplay, and MACUSA, befitting a land in love with acronyms and hinting at a parable about McCarthyism in the offing. The background of Grindelwald’s campaign to stir the magic folk to vengeful pride and force a schism between the magical and ordinary populaces meanwhile evokes the spectre of Nazism, whilst the pall of harsh authoritarianism descend as Graves, MACUSA’s chief Auror hunts the entity attacking the city and coldly sentences Newt and Tina to death when it’s believed the marauding force might be one of Newt’s escaped creatures and played a part in causing a no-maj death. That fatality comes during a political banquet, as newspaper tycoon Henry Shaw (Jon Voight!) promotes his elder son Henry Jnr.’s presidential aspirations, only for the invisible entity to invade the banquet and kill the younger Shaw. Meanwhile Shaw’s second son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) tries to interest his father, without success, in the machinations of Barebone and the New Salemists. This stuff is all important in a way, but the problem is the narrative can’t work out how to arrange it all, partly because the essence of this entry is essentially a goofball frolic. The original series was defined by the tugging gravity of its date-with-destiny storyline, something this film’s busy outlay of elements doesn’t ever feel like recreating.
One seemingly minor but cumulatively revealing problem Fantastic Beasts offers is that the Harry Potter tales understood the tidal psyche of modern Britain, constantly beset by a longing for the past and a guttering hunger to prove itself in the present, and also reaching beyond mere parochial charm to stir the same emotions on a universal scale. Whereas nothing here suggests such a keen understanding of the Americas, particularly in the go-go ’20s, even as surveys of the MACUSA headquarters offer a refreshingly multicultural sprawl. A metaphor for the colour bar is suggested in a ban between wizard and no-maj marriage, one that Queenie’s percolating romance with Kowalski seems poised to violate. Although the film suggests a likeable breadth to its cultural references rooted in the era, most disappointingly for me is that it does little to exploit the period setting with any specific sense of flavour. One of the few moments when it does comes in a brief visit to a hidden goblin tavern, a sequence that cannily conflates wizarding secrecy with speakeasy mores, where green-skinned chanteuses warble the blues and gigglewater stirs bewildering sounds from Kowalski when he downs a glass. Otherwise, the landscape of the magical new world is painted as rather busy, but never entirely coherent, and the superstructure intended to support a long story arc through subsequent instalments comes across as dashed off and flimsy. The America of the 1920s was the polar opposite in motivating spirit to the one that lingered inside the Harry Potter series—it was all about ravening, relentless progress. This might have been manifested by bringing a cleverer, Steampunkish approach to the New World’s magic. But apart from an upgrade in vacuum tube technology, there’s nothing like that.
Rowling’s method of mediating broad statements about individuals within and at odds with society is certainly in play here, but it lacks the spice of familiarity that informed the ruthless caricaturing of New Town fascists like the Dursleys, sociopaths in knitwear like Dolores Umbridge, or the related types noted in Rowling’s expansion of her palate with the partly satirical, partly tragic social panorama The Casual Vacancy. Fantastic Beasts tries to make up for this by quoting a certain brand of bygone melodrama, one that often also strayed over the boundaries into the kind of silent comedy the film tries to evoke—the dens of stern despotism and civic-moralist dominion that provided many an iniquitous prison in D.W. Griffith or G.W. Pabst films, as well as dogged Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Morton’s chilly, ardent, vicious, matriarch is an interesting creation, and introduces a subplot that further expands Rowling’s fascination with the right and wrong way to be an adult and foster children (as well as extending Morton’s scary inhabitation of the same type, after John McNaughton’s The Harvest, 2015). She raises orphans and schools them in her brand of paranoid suspicion and hatred for any sign of peculiarity, forcibly punishing and repressing any sign of such peculiarity in them, including her glum-looking ward Credence (Ezra Miller, who has been carefully made up to look eerily like Buster Keaton). Credence is contacted by Graves, who seems to believe another of Barebone’s charges, Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), might be a fearsomely powerful wizard, and Graves seems intent on fostering and winning over such power to his own enigmatic cause. Tina’s own downfall as an Auror came about when she tried to confront Barebone about her abuse of Credence in her determination to keep his magic at bay.
Perhaps the best idea in Fantastic Beasts is also the most disappointingly handled—the concept of the Obscurus. This is an inversion of the Patronus, a manifestation not of shielding inner strength, but of the kind of inchoate rage that builds up inside young people when their real nature is denied. The Obscurus is a kind of projection that was once common in the wizarding world back when their kind was being hunted constantly by ordinary people. It’s now considered an extinct phenomenon by the wizarding mainstream, but Newt has discovered its persistence and recognises that an Obscurus is being manifested in the city. Sadly, the film’s second half, as Fantastic Beasts tries to bring its plotlines to an intersection and then a climax, begins to resolve in a way that feels like far, far too many other blockbusters of the moment, with city-levelling special effects and clumsy orchestrations of human elements. Yates is a fine director, but his work here lacks much distinction: the staging is often merely efficient rather than inspired, the bouts of action, comical and serious, never quite becoming as clever and intricate as they ought to be, although he does manage to invest some moments, particularly the capture of the Erumpent, with a sense of balletic motion. One distinctive touch Yates brought to the Harry Potter series was manifest in his magical action sequences—magic happened so quickly in his entries that it suggested levels of perception and wielded talent right at the edge of liminal awareness and thus, gave a clue as the difference between the great magicians and the merely good. Here, though, the same ploy just feels weirdly clumsy, and the visualisations of the Obscurus too clichéd as far as contemporary digital effects go, offering just another cloud of black tendrillar smoke, like something Marvel’s house of CGI hacks might have turned out.
All this actually made me appreciate a little better the job Chris Columbus did on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) in introducing a legendarium and the dramatic essentials that would power the next seven entries, for all the juvenile flatness in his approach. Ironically, although The Legend of Tarzan’s script was almost painfully uninventive, Yates’ eye was more confident on that film, as he offered an eerie, almost abstracted vision of a mythical Africa where heroes and monsters roam. And as far as adventures in magical realms goes, and as verboten as this might be in current critical appreciation, I think I may have preferred Tim Burton’s lumpy, but often weirdly personal romp in similar territory this year, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a work that embraced weirdness as a perfectly respectable trait much more vitally than Fantastic Beasts manages. By the finale of this, I was cringing a little at the sloppiness of the exposition, particularly as Graves is unmasked by Newt as Grindelwald in disguise; played by Johnny Depp in one of his customary oddball guises, this one suggesting an escapee from a prison for sadistic Oompah band members. That said, Fantastic Beasts admirably refuses to give too much satisfaction, as Newt and Tina’s efforts to prevent a tragedy fail, signalling that although Fantastic Beasts retreats into the past for setting, whatever new series will spring from this is going to continue playing to the more mature awareness of its longtime fans.
Moreover, the movie recovers its savoir faire beautifully in its concluding scenes, particularly in its visions of Kowalski, faced with having his memory of his extraordinary adventures and new lady love erased by MACUSA order, accepting with grace and receiving a farewell kiss from Queenie in the midst of a falling rain that will rob him of such splendours, whilst all about him magicians repair the broken city. It seems fitting for a work in Rowling’s universe that the real visual set-piece celebrated here is not the destruction of the city, but its restoration—buildings and train lines and urban infrastructure reforming with both awesome power and delicate precision, restoring all the inhabitants to their lives and spaces. Here, the little touches of grace continue and remind one of the best spirit of this marque, like Tina’s little skip after Newt takes his leave but suggests he’ll return, and the final smile the supposedly oblivious Kowalski gives Queenie when she turns up in his new bakery. Frankly, Rowling and the cinematic creative team will need to spend a little more time at the drawing board before offering another entry in this renascent series. But the new elements that work here are sufficiently charming to make me willing to stick with it.