Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Not every shared universe out there can support stories beyond their core. Star Wars, for example, has clearly show that it can handle a lot more than just the adventures of Luke and Leia. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is likely limited to the three novels and four film adaptations already in our hands. Both franchises are terrific, but one has a universe that allows for expansion beyond Hollywood’s obvious need to keep cranking out sequels, and the other doesn’t. That’s not a value judgement, just an observation of their specific nature.
The jury was still out on JK Rowling’ Potterverse before now. There had been some efforts to move beyond Rowling’s seven core Harry Potter novels (and the eight films based on them), and the universe itself seemed larger and diverse enough to support more stories. But Rowling’s heart didn’t quite seem in it, and her admirable need to safeguard the quality of her unique creation led to a dampening of any stories beyond the Harry Potter saga itself.
But now comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a solid stand-alone movie in the Potterverse with a screenplay by Rowling herself and the sure-handed direction of David Yates who helmed the last four Harry Potter films. That gives it the street cred it needs to push this franchise into new territory, and with a marvelous story that won’t make us wait eighteen months to find out what happens next, it make a fine step forward for a universe that may still have a lot to show us.
Rowling’s touch is particularly in evidence, not only for its gentle sense of absurdity, but for her deeply held sympathies for outsiders and the way they often butt heads against larger oppressive social organs. Transplant those concepts into an earlier time and a threat that doesn’t require seven books to vanquish, and suddenly Harry Potter looks like just the beginning.
In Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Fantastic Beasts finds a wonderful Potter surrogate who is just enough like The Boy Who Lived to elicit our sympathies. He’s a kind of wizard biologist, studying various forms of supernatural beasties in an effort to preserve and understand them. He arrives in New York City at the highest of the Jazz Age, screaming “fish out of water” with every awkward step and navigating a wizarding community very different from the one he knew in Great Britain. He carries a magical suitcase full of monsters, rustling softly like Pandora’s Box ready to be unleashed, and naturally runs into a problem not of his making caused by an evil wizard up to no good.
Yates does himself a huge favor by taking our basic knowledge of the Potterverse for granted, then helping us understand the subtle difference between American and British magical norms. The older eras gives it some visual distinction to set it apart for Daniel Radcliffe’s adventures, and while the menace here is of a kind with earlier stories, it attains a freshness that serves it well. We simply haven’t seen The Big Apple in this world before now, and with Rowling’s usually marvelous attention to detail in abundance here, the run-the-the-mill plot can pretty much go on auto-pilot.
We’re left with a sense of exploration that helps the sometimes-pedestrian story forward, complete with a plucky pair of wizard sisters (Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol) to lend a hand and a Muggle baker (Dan Folger, stealing the show) to provide some comic relief. They’re of the same tribe as Harry, Ron and Hermione – outsiders in a world full of them – but their congenial banging against each other makes for an amusing diversion in and of itself. Throw in some terrific effects and the whiff of real darkness against all the fantasy and magic, and Fantastic Beasts stays true to its prestigious heritage.
It’s also something of a relief to enjoy a self-contained movie for a change. While epics and multi-film arcs can prove quite satisfying, we can happily live without a “to be continued” added to the credits once in a while. If Fantastic Beasts is the start of a larger foray into the Potterverse, which seems to be the case, then it’s established a solid template to follow. It can’t quite rank with the best of the Harry Potter films, but it’s certainly in keeping with the traditions that made them so special. Its biggest asset is the simple fact that it makes us glad to return to Rowling’s imagination, and eager to do so again when future invitations arrive… no matter which owl chooses to deliver them.