This post is a bit delayed, but I felt like posting at least one Christmas related movie review before I got to this, and then I spent a couple of days at my parents’ house. Anyway, this is the first part of a multi film prequel/spinoff series to Harry Potter. It’s also the first movie in the franchise to be an original story, and not based on a book. There was a book with the same name released in 2001, although that was basically a “textbook” partly sold to raise money for the Comic Relief charity.
As this takes place roughly 60 years before the books/movies take place, none of the original cast members return. That said, David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter movies) returns to direct both this and its first sequel. The movie stars “Newt” Scamander, the writer of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book that’s mentioned in the Harry Potter books and movies. The first movie also takes place in New York City, giving us a very different setting with a fairly different culture within the wizarding world.
The movie was announced in September of 2013, about two years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 released. Producer David Heyman and writer Steve Kloves both returned for the project (Heyman produced all 8, and Kloves wrote all but Order of the Phoenix). This time however, Kloves is a producer, while J.K. Rowling wrote the script. James Newton Howard soon signed on to compose the soundtrack. Some of his previous credits include The Fugitive, Space Jam, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, The Dark Knight (along with Hans Zimmer), and all four Hunger Games movies. His soundtrack works fairly well, creating brand new themes for an entirely different setting and cast, tapping into the sense of wonder in the magical creatures, while borrowing just enough Harry Potter themes to feel familiar.
Filming began in 2015. Despite the movie taking place in New York, the movie was mostly filmed in Liverpool, with other parts filmed in London. Makes sense, since New York has definitely changed since the 90’s, and those two cities are probably the closest you’re going to get these days.
Eddie Redmayne took on the role of Newt, an introverted magizoologist, and he plays the role perfectly. He seems a bit strange at first, and maybe a bit crazy, but you soon learn that he’s very intelligent when it comes to magical creatures, and he truly cares about them … perhaps more than actual people. Nicholas Hoult and Matt Smith were both considered for the role. Katherine Waterson plays “Tina” Goldstein, a much more grounded character. She’s a former Auror witch working for MACUSA (basically the American version of the Ministry of Magic). She’s very dedicated to her work, sometimes to the point where she doesn’t really pay attention to what’s going on. The two main characters play off each other well, and while they butt head a lot at first, they grow into strong allies and friends.
Perhaps the most amusing addition to the cast is Dan Folder as Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (what the Americans call people with no magical abilities). He’s an aspiring baker and is accidentally exposed to the magical community. He ends up helping Newt in his own way, while also giving us a lot of great comedic reactions to the craziness going on. To round out the main protagonists, you’ve got Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein, Tina’s free-spirited younger sister, who ads a bit more comedy and lighthearted fun to the mix, while also acting as a love interest for Jacob.
Last but not least, you’ve got Colin Farrell playing a high ranking Auror and Director of Magical Security. I won’t say too much about his performance, or his true identity, for that would be a spoiler. I will say that he plays the part well. At first you believe he’s trying to do his best to protect the magical community, even if he’s ill-informed and perhaps a bit too harsh, but his true nature starts revealing itself over time.
There are other noteworthy cast members, but most of them return in the sequel, so I’ll wait until then.
Fantastic Beasts released in November of 2016, 5 years after Deathly Hallows Part 2. It earned a total of $814 worldwide on a budget of $175 million, earning a net profit of $164 million. That made it the 9th most profitable movie of the year. It also earned generally positive reviews, with a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 6.8/10. The Guardian’s review was very positive, giving it 5 out of 5 and calling it “rich, baroque, intricately detailed entertainment”, and a “terrifically good-natured, unpretentious and irresistibly buoyant film.” Most other critics were positive, however New York Magazine’s harsh review called it “distinctively unmagical slog”, and said that the beasts “aren’t especially fantastic and the effects are too blandly corporate to be exhilarating.” The A.V. Club’s review was lukewarm, calling the movie “patchy but occasionally charming”.
The movie actually won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, making it the first movie in the franchise to actually win an Oscar (six of the Harry Potter movies were nominated, several enjoyed multiple nominations, but none of them won). Among its other awards and nominations, it won the Production Design at the BAFTAs, four awards at the Empire Awards, including Redmayne (Newt) for Best Actor. It also won the Saturn Award for Best Costume, in addition to six other nominations.
As for my own thoughts, I enjoyed this movie. I saw it once before, roughly two or three years ago, and I enjoyed it, but never really bothered to watch it again. It’s not as memorable as the Harry Potter movies, but it’s also not trying to be. It’s mostly an entertaining standalone movie where a shy, mildly clumsy magical zoologist accidentally released magical creatures in New York City, at a time where the wizarding world is in the middle of a situation that could grow into another witchcraft hunt.
While Newt tries to recapture them, there’s a more serious situation brewing involving a being called an obscurus. An obscurus happens when a wizard or witch tries to suppress their abilities out of fear, but they end up feeding a very destructive, uncontrollable monster. These monsters kill people and cause more and more damage, until they ultimately destroy the wizard/witch from within. The hunt for the magical creatures is fun, has some great comedy, but also leads to some moving moments when you see Newt caring for his creatures. But it also gets dark and dramatic whenever the movie focuses on the Obscurus’s storyline.
Fantastic Beasts wraps up in a way that feels like a slight Deus ex Machina, but also with a teaser for something much bigger and more serious coming up. And while all the characters say goodbye in the end, the movie teases that they could get together again. I can’t help but feel like this was on purpose, as if they didn’t know how this movie would be received. But the movie did fairly well, and as such, they released its first sequel in 2018, and filming for the third entry began in September of this year, after a COVID delay. This isn’t what I would call an amazing movie, but it’s fun, and I’d recommend it to Harry Potter fans. That said, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who hasn’t seen at least the first four Harry Potter movies or read those books, or you’ll have no idea what’s going on with the magic.
Next up is Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which I haven’t yet seen. Next month, I’ll be doing Sean Connery Month, and I’ll start with Never Say Never Again, his unofficial 7th Bond movie.