Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a spin-off from the Harry Potter series, and the first original script by J.K. Rowling for cinema as well. It is of course inspired by the ‘textbook’ she wrote in 2001, a directory of magical creatures ‘by Newt Scamander.’ It is directed by David Yates, who also directed the last four Harry Potter films.
Scamander is played by Eddie Redmayne, and begins as he travels to New York with a magical expanding suitcase full of creatures. There is a political subtext involving wizards versus Muggles in a period of witch-hunts (despite the fact that the Muggles are still unaware of the parallel world of wizards and witches.) Scamander is trying to make his way to Arizona, and ends up with a team of people along the way. There is a dark wizard on the loose – Gellert Grindlewald – and this also plays an important part in the plot. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (‘MACUSA’) and its backwards views about interactions between Muggles and magical folk are also key elements.
The film was mostly shot at Leavesden Warner Brothers studio, where the Harry Potter studio tours also take place. It has a 1920s New York look, and although there is a lot of CGI involved, it has a good sense of time and place. It visually pops throughout, and the CGI is for the most part so well done that it is convincing. The movie has a real-world basis that keeps it from falling into the trap of some films that look as though they were created entirely on a computer.
Even more so than the Harry Potter films, it is helped by a strong cast that has a mix of seasoned actors and newcomers. You have people like Eddie Redmayne, who has just won an Oscar; Katherine Waterston, recently seen in Inherent Vice, who plays a good witch who works for MACUSA and tries to fight for what is right within the deeply corrupt organisation; and Colin Farrell, who portrays the Director of Magical Security for MACUSA (and who has a dark secret). Ezra Miller plays Credence Barebone the son of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who leads a group, the Second Salemers, that prosecutes witches and wizards. Miller is troubled and mostly mute… and obviously has secret magical powers. Ron Perlman plays a goblin gangster who runs a magical speakeasy, and Jon Voigt appear as a newspaper owner and father of a doomed senator. Johnny Depp also has a cameo, with hair that makes him look like a reject from an 80s synthpop band.
Obviously, it builds on the world of Harry Potter, and in some ways it is a more adult film. All of the main characters are adults, and it has more of a political subtext to it. The parallels to our current political situation have become more interesting given recent events. The overall tone is a bit heavier—it definitely takes some of the darker elements of the HP films to the forefront, but with a fair balance of comic relief.
The disc’s special feature includes an hour of featurettes and fifteen minutes of deleted scenes. Of course, the creatures look great and it’s enjoyable to watch. They’ll be making four more ‘Fantastic Beasts’ films, and given the vastness of the creatures, characters and possible adventures, it should be the start of an intriguing and magical series.