The Potter Verse Grows Up And Gets A Little Darker

Director: David Yates

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Collin Ferrell, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman and John Voight

Rated: PG

Running Time: 2 Hrs, 13 Mins

Studio: Warner Bros.

I wasn’t sure what to expect headed into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was a big fan of the books and adored the first two movies (they were exactly the right mixture of childish wonder and dangerous charm) but found myself wondering how Beasts would fare compared to the Harry Potter saga? Would a movie comprised of adults play just as well? Would it be able to sell a story in 1926 New York, sixty years before Harry, Hermione and Ron were born? Could a movie in the Harry Potter world stand on its own merits and not need to be inspired by an original novel?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about.

Video: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s 1926 and the world’s wizarding community faces a threat unlike any other. The dark wizard Grindelwald has begun attacking the non-magic population in Europe, threatening the secrecy that has protected the wizarding world for centuries. Nowhere is the situation more severe than New York, where a powerful creature is terrorizing the entire city and risks revealing the world of magic. A small group of human fanatics has even sprung from the eroding secrecy, sermonizing on street corners about a secret society of witches that must be destroyed.

Into this toxic stew stumbles Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard whose been touring the globe rescuing and studying some of the world’s exotic (and endangered) magical creatures. As misunderstood as the beasts that fascinate him, Scamander soon finds himself not only trying to track down and recapture some of the incredible animals he brought to New York (which has a strict ban on magical creatures), but eluding the magical authorities who hold him responsible for the monster stalking the city.

Fantastic Beasts succeeds in establishing its own genuine identity. This isn’t a prequel to the Harry Potter movies (where Scamander and his book are barely mentioned), but an exploration of the Potter mythos. There’s plenty of name-dropping and Easter eggs linking the two eras (and continents), but Beasts is a movie franchise that promises to stand on its own.

It does an impressive job of recreating 1920’s New York, with vintage automobiles, cobblestone streets, classical urban American architecture and appropriate fashion of the day, and then taking it a giant step further, creating a secret magical world couched in the shadows and alleys of the Big Apple during the roaring twenties. Magical New York includes house elves tending bar, goblin nightclub owners and mystical speakeasys. It should surprise no one if Beasts gets some Oscar recognition for its painstaking costumes and set designs next February.

Beasts’ offers an unflinching look at American wizarding culture, which is sometimes unflattering. The Congress of Wizards is a nice companion to England’s Ministry of Magic, with an impressive headquarters to boot, but there’s plenty of brutal truth to go along with the fantasy. Take for instance the “electric chair” kept for wizards sentenced to death (sometimes without a trial). Beasts grants a thorough look at the wizarding world outside of the confines and beyond the ideals of a school.

Director David Yates keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, never losing sight of the necessary balance between action, humour and storytelling. There’s plenty of all three rolled into Fantastic Beasts with some genuine human moments as well. He also makes sure to inject a healthy (and previously unseen) dose of dark reality into the mix as well.

That last part is key; this is Harry Potter for adults. While the original books and the movies they inspired were meant for children (or the child inside you), this is a Potterverse meant for adults (that can still be appreciated by your inner child). There are no teachers there to protect the heroes or bail them out when things get scary. Actions have (sometimes dire) consequences and there is genuine suffering and even death. Defeat is very real and victories come at a cost and are sometimes laced with tragedy. And the idea that war with the Muggles and Non-Magics of the world is inevitable should the outside world ever discover the secret world of wizards and witches is inevitable is central to the entire movie’s narrative. More than once it touches on a violent history between the two sides and bloody events that forced wizards into hiding. It more than flirts with a sentiment among some in the wizarding community of natural superiority (such is the message of the feared Grindelwald). Fantastic Beasts is fantasy for grown ups without the stereotypical fairy tale morality.

The special effects set a new standard for the Potter films (which have always been fairly high), particularly when it’s showing off its fantastic creatures. Plenty of imagination was invested into the look and personality of the beasts in question, particularly the nyphler, a furry little kleptomaniac that ironically steals every scene its in. Don’t be surprised to see a very lucrative merchandising empire grow out of these movies if they unfold the way Warner Bros and J.K. Rowling hope (with four planned sequels).

Redmayne does an excellent job as the awkward, destined to be legendary Scamander and Katherine Waterston sells her part as the former (and disgraced) Auror Tina Goldstein. Collin Ferrell gives a gruff performance as chief Auror Percival Graves but its Dan Fogler who steals the show as Non Magi Jacob Kowalski. Fogler was the perfect choice to play struggling everyman Kowalski, who quickly becomes the movie’s comic relief. He’s a perfect grounding vehicle for all the fantasy as well as a constant reminder of the mundane world the magic world needs to hide from.

Fantastic Beasts offers a fresh look at a world everyone came to love, many as children. A world with countless unexplored corners and characters and histories, a world that can easily spawn a hundred more franchises. And as long as Harry Potter creator and author J.K. Rowling remains as excited and as involved as she is now, you can rest assured that any new Potter ground future movies tread upon will be revered with proper respect. Warner Bros. is planning on making Fantastic Beasts it’s own standalone franchise and if this succeeds, there’s no reason they can’t explore all the other avenues and facets of Rowling’s brilliant creation. A History of Quidditch movie anyone? A young Dumbledore solo movie? The founding of Hogwarts? You get the idea.

Warner Bros. may not have only found another billion-dollar franchise, but an answer to Disney’s Star Wars trump card as well. One thing’s for sure, the future is bright for millions of Potter fans because it looks like this may be the beginning of a promising cinematic buffet.

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures