Last week I went to see the Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” – a 2hours and 13minutes long PG-13 rated feature film written by J. K. Rowling and directed by David Yates. As it has received very mixed reviews, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I feared the worst and hoped for the best.
The film takes place in the USA instead of in England and here the British wizard Newt Scamander arrives to New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of magical creatures – the fantastic beasts of the title. By accident the creatures are let loose and together with his American friends Tina, Queenie and Kowalski, Newt tries to get the creatures back while being chased by Percival Graves, the head of the Magical Congress of the United States of America’s (MACUSA's) Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
I have to admit that the film is quite charming with great special effects, but unfortunately you don’t get the feeling that you are back in the Harry Potter universe. In fact, it is as far from Harry Potter as it can be with the story taking place in the USA instead of England, the main characters being adults instead of children and the muggles no longer called muggles but “no-majs” (I’ve seen it spelled “no-mages” as well, but “no-majs” seems to be the official way of spelling it although it doesn’t make sense!). Actually, it could have been any fantasy film and as such it is a bit disappointing if you’ve expected a Harry Potter prequel fantasy film. As my cinema companion said, “This could have been a great film, but the makers ruined it by letting us believe that we were going to see something Harry Potter-related.”
Rowling does indeed seem to be going to great lengths to change the Harry Potter universe by separating it from England and attaching it to the US instead. This is not becoming at all, as the ancient magic of the HP universe doesn’t feel right in the roaring twenties’ America. In fact, I couldn’t help wondering if this film is one big sucking up to the Americans in the hopes that they’ll spend more money on the HP universe if they get the feeling that it belongs to them instead of the Brits. All HP films are made by American Warner Brothers, anyway, and all HP amusement parks are situated in the US (and Japan) with none in Europe, so why not move the stories to America as well and make them all Hollywood? Rowling has even created an American school of witchcraft and wizardry called Ilvermorny, which according to the film is much better than Hogwarts (or Hogwash as one American character calls it). Unfortunately, this is a bad move, as the charm and mysticism of the HP universe is lost among the “historyless” sky scrapers of New York City.
I for one feel alienated through this film that reduces the European wizards to an awkward, whimsical albeit lovable character, Newt Scamander. He is extremely eccentric with absolutely no situational awareness, but Eddie Redmayne lends the character a gentle charm without ever making Newt memorable. The two female leads, Tina played by Katherine Waterston and the Marilyn Monroe-predecessor Queenie played by Alison Sudol, are just as unnoticeable, Tina even bordering to boring. The baddie Graves played by Colin Farrell is as boring as the female protagonists and what is worse, he gives away the big “surprise” at the end by handing his protégé Credence Barebone (played stoopingly by Ezra Miller) a necklace with the symbol of the deathly hallows earlier in the film. The only really good character is the muggle, sorry no-maj, Jacob Kowalski played superbly by Dan Fogler. He is so extremely funny that his character alone is worth the price of admission.
As for the story, it is a little too long. As usual Rowling takes forever to get from point A to point B, but at least there are not as many plot holes as in her HP books. Even David Yates seems to have improved as a director, as “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” isn’t as “montage”-like as his four Harry Potter films (HP 5-8).
All in all, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a nice film, but simply not HP, and as such it deserves three out of five stars: ***