I hate to break it to you, but we are currently approximately 16% of the way through the 21st century. All resources must be exploited. All revenue streams must be maximised. The chances of anything still popular and therefore financially viable being allowed to remain a fond memory are, to be perfectly honest, zero. So it should come as no surprise that it has been decreed that the vastly lucrative entity that was the Harry Potter film series has lain fallow long enough, and that a series of prequel movies has duly started to appear. (It took about fifteen years for the original Star Wars trilogy to get prequelated; ten years for The Lord of the Rings; with Harry Potter the delay is down to five. At this rate the prequels will soon start coming out in double bills with the films they are based on.) First out of the blocks to hoover your money is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates.
(What, too much? You may have a point, especially considering I was rather positive about Yates’ Tarzan movie, which only came out a few months ago: he must have knocked this one out in a couple of weekends. Well, anyway: you must forgive me, it’s my age. Come on, it’s not as if JK Rowling actually needs the money or anything.)
All righty then: the story opens with the arrival in New York, New York of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He is a traveller who appears to be British, has floppy hair, is terribly eccentric yet clearly meant to be hugely endearing, wears a bow tie, and has a battered old box which is bigger on the inside than the outside (hey, I’m just saying). Newt is, of course, a wizard, for we are in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TM), although we are also in 1926 on this occasion.
Inside Newt’s magic box are his collection of magic animals, a.k.a. weird little chunks of CGI, which he frequently fishes out and bonds with; so often, in fact, that you begin to fear for Redmayne’s sanity after all that acting to empty air and golf-balls on sticks. His visit to the States runs into trouble when he accidentally mixes up his case with that of aspiring baker and non-magician Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and several of the little buggers inevitably escape. This draws the attention of magical cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her kooky sister (Alison Sudol).
The magical authorities of the States are not best pleased as it seems that some kind of supernatural menace is already on the loose in the Empire City, preying on normal people and wizards alike, with top wizard-cop Colin Farrell on the case. Can Newt and his friends recapture all his lumps of CGI and solve the mystery of what’s really going on?
The ardour of the Harry Potter fanbase is still such that a film like Fantastic Beasts is effectively critic-proof; and sure enough this one has made over $270 million in about a week of release. Anyway, it would be remiss of me to say that it is an actual waste of time, money, and talent, for clearly a lot of thought, imagination and skill has gone into creating the world and story of the film.
Even so, one can’t help but notice that this first made-directly-for-the-screen tale has ditched the British setting for something more familiar to that big audience in the USA (i.e, a setting in the USA). It hasn’t become totally Americanised, but something very odd still seems to have happened: this is a film with a main character who resembles an American person’s idea of what the British are like, set in a place which is a British person’s idea of what America is like. Then again, it’s JK Rowling, so you don’t turn up expecting reality, and the two things do kind of balance each other out.
That said, I’m rather less impressed with Rowling the screenwriter than I was with Rowling the novelist: the story is reasonably well-structured, and properly cinematic in scope, but the plotting is considerably less impressive, the tendency towards sentimentality seems rather stronger, and as usual the thing is in dire need of a good no-nonsense editor.
Possibly the most serious problem, which may become more obvious as this series goes on – apparently four (four?!?) more prequels are in the works – is that very sense of self-indulgence, of the film being its own raison d’etre. I still think much of the success of the Harry Potter books was down to their comforting familiarity to parents rather than children: there’s a touch of Agatha Christie to that fiendishly clever plotting, and also of Enid Blyton in the Three Have A Wizard Time vibe which is so often in evidence. Underneath all the intricate world-building they are on some level pastiches of different kinds of story.
Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, is just a fantasy with a couple of right-on subtexts of brick-through-your-window subtlety, coupled to a lot more world-building. Some of this is interestingly unexpected: the magical community in the USA, despite having a female president (told you it was a fantasy), is by no means depicted entirely flatteringly – they are autocratic and alarmingly fond of the death penalty. But much of the rest of it may not be that interesting to you if you’re not already a pretty heavy-duty Harry Potter fan, and many of the references to characters and so on from the previous films and books may likewise go over your head if you’re not one of the faithful. Due to my abnormally retentive mind, I think I got most of the references, but even so I thought much of the climax was rather underwhelming – there didn’t seem to me to be a lot at stake, at least nothing I’d been made to care about. Some concluding revelations in particular are most likely to simply baffle people who maybe saw all the earlier films once each when they came out, and can’t remember all the labyrinthine backstory of every major character.
Still, it looks suitably lavish and there are some nice performances: Redmayne is a bit too mannered for my tastes, but Fogler gives a charming performance, Farrell gives proceedings some heft, and they appear to have finally run out of new ways to smother Ron Perlman in latex rubber: he appears here via mo-capping, as a goblin who seems to be in desperate need of a chiropractor. None of it is actively bad, although Sudol’s performance possibly comes close in terms of sheer capacity to annoy, and I have no doubt the expectant masses will lap it up like butterbeer.
Fantastic Beasts is, though, primarily a film which has been made to service an existing fanbase, and just how much you enjoy it will probably depend on how much of a true believer you are. I was never really one of the faithful, certainly as far the movies go, and so I found this film to be a reasonable diversion, perhaps rather overlong and a bit schmaltzy, but generally inoffensive overall. It will be interesting to see how well this film does over the whole length of its release, and whether subsequent instalments will direct themselves quite so exclusively at the core audience. And if it sounds to you that I’m treating this film more as an exercise in branding and marketing than an actual piece of storytelling – well, I commend you on your perspicacity. But it is 2016, after all.