Fantastic beasts and where to find them

reviewed by luke o'reilly

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was originally a text book in the Harry Potter universe that subsequently apparently warranted being printed as a companion piece to the novels. The film loosely based on this text book is J.K. Rowling's first attempt at writing a screenplay.  The film follows the author of that book Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) on a journey he takes to New York while writing the text book. In New York Scamander unites with a non-magical baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), former Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister in order to capture Scamander's lost creatures and battle a malevolent force that is murdering non-magical people across the city. Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, the director of American Wizardry's magical security force, who seems to be interested in Redmayne's creatures for his own nefarious ends. Samantha Morton plays Mary Lou, the matriarch of a fanatical witch-hunting family who seem hell bent on outing and eradicating the magical community of New York. Psychoanalysis makes an appearance in the form of a monster created by the unconscious minds of repressed wizards and witches.

Backstory was one of the strengths of the Harry Potter series. Stories that took place before the books were used to provide the books' characters and events with foreshadowing and depth. There is nothing wrong with mining that back story for actual scenes. Game of Thrones managed this successfully in its most recent series, the later Hobbit films did not.

The problem with Fantastic Beasts is that it attempts to create new inroads while stealing old Harry Potter backstory for its own. In effect it takes the political history that the Harry Potter series hung upon while failing to explore it. This wouldn't be a problem if the story of Fantastic Beasts proved to be as engaging as the Harry Potter films. Rather it has the air of an extended episode of Doctor Who to it. Throughout, the film mixes the taxonomy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Fide Them with the political history of the Harry Potter series. That political history, Grindelwald and his battle with Dumbledore is ripe for the picking, but barely gets a look in.

Watching the capture of each escaped creature is about as interesting as watching levels of a video game being completed. One redeeming feature could have been the soundtrack, but sadly it doesn’t come close to matching the iconic score from the original films.

Depressingly, the opening of the film actually utilises a 'read all about it' twirling newspaper montage for exposition. Worse than that, it even hints at a much more interesting opening with a 3 second clip of Grindelwald dispatching a team of Aurors, a clip which also manages to give away the film's only plot twist. One can only assume that the decision to do this while also maintaining the pretence of the twist for the rest of the film must have been caused by last minute re-shoots.

For the whole film 3D again proves to be an excuse to neglect using the camera to tell the story. The camera toggles around the set like the screen-view of a PS4 game.

Fantastic Beasts is a rather poor addition to the canon. Like the Hobbit movies the film is light on plot, while heavy on special effects. Its one saving grace is that Eddie Redmayne is a much better actor than Daniel Radcliffe. The supporting cast are all weak, except for Colin Farrell. Fantastic Beasts effectively is to the Harry Potter series what the Hobbit movies were to The Lord of the Rings