[Dir. David Yates]
[4 out of 5 stars]
The moment the Warner Bros logo appears surrounded by ominous dark clouds and the familiar theme filling the already buzzing theatre, it was like a cloak of comfort was wrapped around me. A familiar feeling. All of a sudden I was twelve again. That means that I'm going to be biased to this movie. This isn't so much a movie to me as it is a return home.
A part of me clearly sees its flaws: the indulgent pacing, the awkward characters and the simplistic story but just as the Harry Potter series evolved over time from rompy magical adventures to layered, complex and increasingly dark narratives with higher stakes, I am absolutely confident that JK Rowling has plenty more hiding up her sleeve. She is just getting started.
There are two reasons why the Harry Potter series was so successful. The first is Rowling's immeasurable imagination and world-building, which is maintained in this film. The creatures and the beasts all brought out a sense of wonder, charm and terror. The best worlds built with imagination are those that closely resemble the real world and the parallel between the Muggle world (or No-Maj as they are called Stateside) and the wizarding world is always going to provide its most tantalising moments.
Consider the way Newt Scamander, the writer of the soon-to-be published textbook of magical creatures that share the film's title, goes through customs as he enters New York. His suitcase is inspected by a customs officer. It is full of magical creatures (presumably with an Extension Charm) but has a Muggle-safe switch that shows a delightfully normal assemblage of clothes and other non-magical items. Its this beguiling normalcy hiding the fascinating world of magic that opens up the audience's imagination. Imagine what else we cannot see or comprehend in the real world. Rowling's world allows us a glimpse into this make-believe interstice.
The other reason this world is so successful is the characters. Rowling has always championed the outsiders. Her most loveable characters are the most eccentric ones. They aren't only likeable because of their quirks but they are empowered, strong people because of it. From the way the ethereal Luna Lovegood uniquely sees the world around her, helping Harry Potter figure out mysteries that no one else would know, to the awkward and forgetful Neville Longbottom's evolution into a brave, quintessential hero-type. Their difference is their strength. The great conflict in this world does not stem from evil dark wizards but it's conformity and fear of the other.
In FANTASTIC BEASTS, we are introduced to a whole new cast of characters whose unique traits provide the shell in which they will grow into as the narrative evolves and delves into darker territory. Newt Scamander, the lonely, eccentric "magizoologist", whose devotion and care of magical creatures indicates a sensitivity and empathy towards the unloved and the feared, in the same way another beloved character, Hagrid, understood these powerful creatures. They both see goodness in them, no matter how menacing they may seem. Tina Goldstein, the ex-auror who teams up with Newt to gather the creatures, and keep the city of New York safe, has a back story of her own. She's demoted from an Auror (dark wizard catcher) to the thankless role of Federal Wand Permit Office due to a misjudged assault of a No-Maj. She has a lot to prove and a lot more room to grow.
After the film ended I was struck by how the characters seemed to lack something but then I realised what we are given in this first instalment are the basic outline of their characters. There are four more upcoming movies and like I said before, I am confident in Rowling's ability to make what seems like something simplistic magicked into a complex web of complicated characters and complex, interweaving storylines. It's like I've been transfigured as a child again. And I can't wait to grow up (again) with these characters.
[Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures]