Tony wants a Niffler for Christmas.
Even extremely good actors have to audition for the role of Doctor Who.
Welcome to Eddie Redmayne’s.
No, of course that’s not all Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is. For generations of geeks and geeklings, it’s something altogether more exciting. It’s New Harry Potter!
Except, of course, not. New Harry Potter-world, only previous. And American. And with a whole new cast. And creatures.
Newt Scamander is the David Attenborough of the wizarding world, travelling around the globe to find creatures that most people poorly understand and subsequently fear. Newt is a gentle, slightly obsessive soul in a world that for the most part has bigger things on its mind – mostly the ravings of a rogue wizard named Gellert Grindelwald. Potter fans will remember his legend from the Deathly Hallows, but here he’s stirring up trouble with his ideas of tearing away the veil between the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds, of claiming what is essentially ‘living space’ among the humans.
But Newt, while aware of his rantings, is not really concerned with Grindelwald. He’s come to America with a particular beast-related mission in mind, but he’s no sooner off the boat than things start to go distinctly wrong. His suitcase is mistaken for that of would-be baker and ‘No-Maj’ (what British wizards call ‘Muggles’), Jacob Kowalski. And then some of the fantastic beasts he keeps in his hand luggage break free and go on a tour of New York. To some extent, it’s all jolly japes as Newt, Kowalski, ex-auror Porpentina Goldstein and her sister, the accidentally mind-reading Queenie race around New York trying to round up less than a handful of Newt’s escaped creatures, but running parallel to that, there’s already something magical and dangerous in the city, which is ready to start killing people. We won’t tell you in advance what it is, but suffice it to say it adds substantively to what we know of magic like the patronus. Newt’s seen it before in a different form and so knows what it is and how dangerous it can be. When this seemingly ungovernable form of ‘fantastic beast’ starts killing No-Majs, things escalate quickly, with Percival Graves, (Colin Farrell), Director of Magical Security at ‘MACUSA’ – the Magical Congress of the United States of America – taking personal charge of the investigation, and leaders from all around the magical world gathering in the city as it seems inevitable the Non-Majs will finally learn of the wizarding world’s existence.
The solution to the movie’s mysteries is partly a tragedy, partly a Scooby Doo episode, and partly a big shiny red reset button – the second magical reset of this movie season, after Doctor Strange. But there’s distinct progression here, as there has been in every other JK Rowling movie, into darker territory ahead.
Yes, yes, but is it any good?
Honestly, as a question, that hardly matters – Potter fans will go see it in their squillions. But actually, yes, in most respects, it’s excellent. The world-building that goes into Fantastic Beasts is second to none – it takes the world that was first carefully constructed in the controlled environment of Hogwarts and eventually expanded into the Muggle and Magical UK and blows it right up in terms of scale. The US does things differently, but it still does them, and it’s fun learning both the subtle differences, and the dark similarities, as Grindelwald takes the place of Voldemort in this earlier instalment of wizarding history.
The idea of Newt Scamander as the natural historian of the wizarding world is a keen one, allowing for plenty of fun which could easily become formulaic, but for Rowling’s continual care of her world and the intellect of her fans – she finds Interesting, as well as Fantastic beasts, gives them logical ways of being, and allows Newt Scamander to be part Attenborough, part Doolittle. We get glimpses of his school history (expelled for releasing wild beasts at Hogwarts, much like his natural successor, Hagrid, though not for nothing, Newt’s still allowed a wand and uses it freely), that add depth to his characterisation. The other principal castmembers too are more or less intriguing. Kowalski, played with bonhomie and mystification by Dan Fogler, is a likeable schmo. The Goldstein sisters (Katherine Waterston as Tina, Alison Sudol as Queenie) are chalk and cheese, but each have integral parts to play, and both have characters of which we’d like to see more. Colin Farrell as Graves is believably thorough, even if he never entirely lights up the screen. There’s at least one tender romance with a heartbreaking conclusion and perhaps, just perhaps, a beautiful post-script, depending on whether love can triumph over both law and lore.
So yes, there are a lot of really good elements to Fantastic Beasts.
Eddie Redmayne was not of course auditioning for Doctor Who when he took this role – though he’s subsequently said he’d like the part (something that seems unlikely given the extreme probability of Fantastic Beasts becoming a series of movies). But while delivering Newt as a sensitive, awkward soul with an inner strength and a distracted surface except where his beasts are concerned, what he gives us here is a kind of ‘low energy Eleventh Doctor’ performance that comes worryingly close to letting us lose interest of the centre of the movie at several points. By low energy, what we mean is that part of the Eleventh Doctor’s life when he was suddenly struck by some surprising wonder in humanity, or was trying not to cry. Imagine the Eleventh Doctor stripped of his showmanship, his mad pizazz and his angry moments, and what you’re left with is for the most part rather soggy. And that’s the energy with which Redmayne propels Scamander through Fantastic Beasts. Oh there are action sequences, absolutely – he runs across rooftops with the best of them, and there’s plenty of Clever Stuff, Redmayne proving he can deliver fantasy gobbledegook with the best of them too. There’s even a notable shift in energy and focus when Newt shows people round his luggage, explaining his beasts and their natures to people. But the character or the performance or both lack that pizazz, that Tiggerishness to counterbalance them, meaning there’s a sogginess in the centre of the movie, a slightly underbaked heart surrounded by lots of really good work.
As we say, that won’t matter in the slightest – Redmayne and Scamander remain thoroughly likeable throughout, the world-building’s exquisite and Potter fans will rightly clutch Fantastic Beasts to their hearts. And what’s more, there is a character logic to the energy with which Redmayne chooses to push Newt through the movie, so it’s not, in actual fact, as though there’s anything wrong with the performance. It just leaves you almost wishing you had a fast-forward button for some sections of the movie.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has enough story-strands left dangling to run and run. And hopefully, the more we learn about Newt Scamander, his history and his future, the more natural the energy-flow of the movie will feel. If he’s not perhaps as instant a hero as The Boy Who Lived, The Man Who Cared is still intriguing enough to make us come back to see him time and time again.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk