The Harry Potter kids have come of age now. Those who started as fankids with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, are now solidly in their twenties, and those who got swept into the franchise with the later books, are mature teens. So, it makes sense that the most recent film to leverage off the Potter brand, is one that aims a dart that targets a mature audience.
There are barely any children in this film, and it is so dark and malevolent, that I would not take a child to see this film. Many scenes are filled with evil, uncontrollable, supernatural forces that tear buildings apart and kill people; there are nuanced scenes of sexual grooming, and there is overt child abuse. In addition, an ominous mood of hostility inhabits the film, as ‘nomajs’ (i.e. muggles) and magical folk, are constantly preparing to square off because dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald might be in hiding in the USA and preparing to sow seeds of chaos in America, after causing pandemonium in Europe. It’s clear that director David Yates is continuing with this film, the dark and edgy mood of the Harry Potter films he made previously: The Half Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows.
As for the Fantastic Beasts of the title … well they are MacGuffins. A MacGuffin, you may recollect, is a term that Hitchcock popularised. It is a device in a film which serves as a trigger to drive the story along, but is not in itself of any great importance. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a Gerald Durrellesque-type conservationist who carries a magical, but ordinary looking suitcase, that contains the eponymous beasts and the habitats that they most enjoy roaming in. The CGI work to create both the beasts and the habitat is bold, brilliant and beguiling. Some of the fantastical animals in Newt’s menagerie include a mighty golden eagle/phoenix; a nest of peacock-coloured, winged-serpents and a platypus-type creature called a Niffler, which collects gems, precious metals, jewels and coins as fast as a trophy wife. J.K Rowling wrote the screenplay, and canny businesswoman that she is, she has included far more creatures in the film than are actually necessary to the plot. Did she spot a merchandising opportunity, perchance?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set in New York, in the Roaring Twenties, and the trigger which launches the major plotline, is a classic suitcase switch – Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) accidentally picks up Newt’s suitcase. Tina Goldstein, (Katherine Waterston) works for the Magical Congress of the USA and she initially suspects that Newt is up to no good, so she stays close to the pair. Ultimately, she realises that she’s about to score an ‘own goal’ with Newt as he is a ‘good guy’, and so then she and her clairvoyant, flapper sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) help the men to investigate the mystery behind the random destruction of New York property that has been occurring.
This prequel film makes reference to the Potter universe with a few famous names, such as Dumbledore and Hogwarts, which flit through the dialogue like portentous spirits. It’s been announced that there are going to be five movies in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, and the way the film ends, makes it clear that Jacob and Queenie still have a tale to tell. Between Newt and Tina, a lighthouse beam clue is shone into the viewer’s eyes about the certainty of a reunion, but hopefully it does not foreshadow the development of a romantic romp in a future film – both actors do a good job in crafting believable on-screen characters – but there is not a skerrick of magnetic attraction between them. Then there’s also the dangling sub-plot of the politically scheming news baron, played by Jon Voight, whose favourite son ran for political office, but received the unwanted attentions of an Obscuris before he could hold office – somehow, it feels as if this plot point is going to march forward as well.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a highly watchable film. It might even be described as a highly enjoyable film. However, it reminds me of those coloured stars that my primary school teachers used to affix to work that was commendable, but not exceptional. What everyone really wanted, was a gold star, and that’s what I will not be awarding to this film. It’s good entertainment, there’s nothing to complain about with regards to acting, CGI or sound, and the visual film techniques are solid enough to award this film five coloured stars. But as everyone knows, five coloured stars do not equal even one gold star. And as another famous Brit once said: “… there’s the rub.”