Monday, 12 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the eighth and final Harry Potter film, hit the big screen, we return to JK Rowling’s magical world of witchcraft and wizardry with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Although set in the same universe as the Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts is set in 1920s New York, some 70 years before Harry defeated Voldemort at the battle of Hogwarts. Hogwarts-expellee, New Scamander, arrives at the beginning of the film in Manhattan with a suitcase full of magical beasts who do not want to stay cooped up for long. Unfortunately, tensions between the magical and non-magical world are rising high with the looming threat of Grindelwald and anything that poses a risk of exposing the magical community is unwelcome in New York. The first of potentially five movies, this looks to be the beginning of a fantastical new franchise.  

Directed by David Yates (who brought us the four last -and best- Harry Potter movies) and written by JK Rowling herself, Fantastic Beasts has very cleverly and successfully created a world and a story that feel both familiar and completely new at the same time. Whilst we are presented with a new protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a new set of characters, a new city and a new magical authority, this film isn’t completely devoid of links to Harry’s story. Newt is the author of Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (hence the film’s name) and we also hear such familiar names as Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts and Gellert Grindelwald being bandied about. Yates’ familiar handprint is on this film in the look of the beasts, the movement of the wands and the feel of the magic. Yet the new setting and different, grown-up protagonists, together with the completely fresh and new story prevent us as an audience feeling like we’ve seen it all before.
Yates has done an amazing job of turning Watford, London into 1920’s New York. The setting of this film feels not only real but, what’s more, it feels alive. Yates achieves this most notably in two ways. Firstly, in the incredible attention to detail presented in Fantastic Beasts. Everything you are looking at is deliberate and almost every scene has something magical and wonderful tucked away in the background for those who are looking carefully: from the mouse memos to the sky-ceiling in the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) building.   

Secondly, Yates brings the world to life with the almost constant movement of the camera. As No-Maj (or Muggle, as we call them in the UK) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) explores the TARDIS-like world full of fantastic beasts inside New Scamander’s briefcase, we explore with him, the camera roaming around like an inquisitive visitor.   

Of course, no franchise would be complete without a great lead. Eddie Redmayne perfectly encapsulates what Newt should be: socially-awkward, shy, kind and full of wonder and empathy. Redmayne has demonstrated in recent years what an amazing actor he is (nominated two years in a row for the best actor Oscar and winning the award for The Theory of Everything). In this film, as he did when portraying Stephen Hawking, he demonstrates what an amazingly physical actor he is, altering his entire physicality for the role. Most noticeable perhaps is the way he moves his face when speaking with members of his own race, never looking them directly in the eye and demonstrating a discomfort that disappears when he interacts with his beasts. Perhaps more subtle however is the very deliberate way he walks, the manner in which he moves his legs and feet with each step. If you pay attention, you will see that he widens his toes when stepping to minimise noise, as one would when approaching a wild animal. 

This movie isn’t carried by Redmayne alone however. Each member of the central supporting cast is very watchable and has a strong screen presence. Accompanying Newt as he rescues his beasts are Dan Fogler as Kowalski and Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as witch sisters, Tina and Queenie. Each of these actors lights up the screen with their warming presence – as one would want in what is essentially a children’s film- and Fogler and Waterston in particular have the amazing ability to portray complex thoughts and feelings through simple facial movements. 

Setting a darker tone in Fantastic Beasts are the formidable villains: Samantha Morton as second Salemer and wannabe witch-hunter, Mary Lou, and dodgy MACUSA official, Mr Graves, played by the charismatic Colin Farrell. Both of these well-established British actors will send chills down your spine, commanding your attention each time they are on screen.

But what is the best thing about this film? Well, unless you have some cruel friends who’ve spoilt it for you or you’ve spent too much time searching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” on the internet, you will have no idea where this film is going or how it will end. That is something the original Potter films could never never do (for those of us sane persons who had read the books).
I greatly enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and cannot wait to see where J.K. Rowling takes us with this new franchise. Now who wants to buy me a niffler?