I was a nerdy British nine year old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published. I, therefore, really ought to have been a big fan of the series. All my friends were (and mostly still are). Yet for some reason I never got into them. I did eventually read the Philosopher’s Stone in a rush before seeing the film. I thought both were alright but neither gripped me enough to induce me to spend further time reading or watching them. Perhaps my love for Star Trek and Star Wars was too all consuming for me to have room for another franchise in my heart.
So I came to Fantastic Beasts if not cold then at least rather chilled. I could probably have named most of the central characters but I had essentially no awareness of the wider history of the magical universe that books two through seven presumably sketch out. Which is significant because this new installment is a prequel and takes place within that backstory.
There were times when I felt that meant I wasn’t getting as much from Fantastic Beasts as I could. Various moments – including the big and rather obvious reveal at the end – lacked the impact they might have had. The same went for Easter Eggs – particularly taking the opportunity to name characters – which may excite fans but for me just broke the flow. Perhaps most significantly, I wasn’t familiar with the tone and it took me twenty minutes or so to click into it.
Despite that the tone was probably the thing I liked most about it. It alternates rather a lot. On the one hand, there is the story the title implies: the whimsical tale of heroes rounding up magical creatures. On the other, there are the elements of the film centring on the villains. These are not only dark but remarkably so. They contain allusions to terrorism, segregation, the Red Scare, the rise of fascism and child abuse. There has been some criticism that the film doesn’t really gel these two halves and therefore winds up suffering from ‘tonal whiplash’. That’s true but unfair. The bleaker scenes have all the more impact for being placed amongst generally lighter moments. A genuinely creepy execution scene particularly stands out.
I also liked how a more British sensibility was preserved despite the setting being transferred to New York. It was not only the presence of a magical item that’s smaller on the inside than the outside that made me think of Dr Who!
If I have a gripe it’s that the CGI looks, well, very CGI. The visuals are not without their merits: 1920s New York is wonderfully evoked. However, when magic is supposedly bending reality it is a bit too obvious that a computer is really doing it. This problem is highlighted by the fact that Fantastic Beasts comes out soon after Doctor Strange. Marvel’s latest offering realised its magical world with great panache and was genuinely awe inspiring. When you’ve seen it showing people rebuilding structures with magic, the same thing happening in Fantastic Beasts seems rather humdrum.
But that is to quibble. Fantastic Beasts may not be essential viewing for non-Potter fans but we can still enjoy it. The film makes liberal use of the Potterverses mythology but does not assume your familiarity with it. Besides reminders of previous instalments, Fantastic Beasts also delivers plenty of warmth, humour alongside some nicely nasty creepiness. I will definitely be looking out for the sequel.