Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Review

The Harry Potter movies are over, so now what? Was that really it for the franchise that spawned box office success after box office success or does author J.K.Rowling got more up her sleeve?
Of course she does, so along comes the adaption of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them -  a prequel story about the making of the Hogwarts schoolbook of the same name.
With a new location and an entirely new cast of characters and actors lead by new protagonist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has much that could bring the same (if not even better) magic to the screen as the Harry Potter movies.
Does Fantastic Beasts deliver said magic or is it nothing more than a spin-off standing in the shadow of Harry Potter?...

The plot:
The year is 1926 and Newt Scamander has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident...were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt's fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
Source: IMDb

Being a spin-off and at the same time prequel to the Harry Potter story, Fantastic Beasts focusses on new protagonist Newt Scamander, author of the future schoolbook used in Hogwarts entitled "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them". Set in 1920s in New York, where the import of beasts is forbidden, Newt Scamander disobeys said wizard laws by illegally carrying in an assortment of beasts in his endlessly deep magic briefcase. Through a series of unlucky situations however, said beasts escape the briefcase and now roam wild in New York. Now it's up to Scamander and his new found friends to recapture those fantastic beasts and bring them to safety. Yet little do they know that something far more sinister takes advantage of the tense situations that came with Scamander to release something that might put the entire magic world into danger.

New York, New York...

Right off the bat it becomes instantly obvious that Fantastic Beasts manages to recapture the exact same awe and spectacle from the great Harry Potter movies, yet skillfully finds new ways to showcase and expand J.K.Rowling's imaginative universe.
With that said, Fantastic Beasts does a great job of directly feeling like it really takes place in the same Harry Potter universe, but doesn't exactly feel like a straight up copy-and-paste version of a Harry Potter movie. Primarily through the help of a set of great new characters, the movie manages to avoid falling into any sort of comparisons with Harry Potter movies, but instead focusses on telling an own story with an own distinct feel.
In that sense, instead of following the more detective-esque "whodunit"-kind of story structure from the Harry Potter movies, Fantastic Beasts feels more like a mix of Jumanji and X-Men set in the Harry Potter universe. While this combination might seem weird at first, Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, did a fantastic job of combining both a more lighthearted adventure style movie with a more serious darker movie focussing also on more emotional and even tragic themes.

The movie actually feels like a Harry Potter themed mix of Jumanji and X-Men.

This manifests in Fantastic Beasts through the movie working at first with two main plots that eventually intertwine and lead to a great big finale - the first plot involving Scamander and friends trying to recapture his beasts, and another plot focussing on the political situation in New York and a hateful No-Maj/Muggle family trying to proof the existence of wizards and witches to have them extinct (or at least exiled).
Sure enough, some viewers might find the tonal shifts when the movie transitions from the one lighter plot to the other darker one a bit jarring, yet as both plot threads eventually move closer and closer together, the tones combine and make for a mix that has the right amount of comedy yet also seriousness to make it all fit together very neatly somehow. Thus, being the first spin-off movie of an already planned own franchise, Fantastic Beasts tonally feels both like one of the earlier more lighthearted adventurous Harry Potter movies just as much as it feels like one of the darker more serious ones later in the franchise.

The movie nicely features both lighter as well as darker themes throughout.

Yet the best part about all of it is that Fantastic Beasts does never really feel like it relies on the success or stories laid out by Harry Potter. While there are some minor hints here and there to the Harry Potter movies, the movie largely avoids making any connections to them. Whereas franchises like Star Wars oftentimes tend to overdo their connections to the point where it feels like every single character seems to be related to one another, Fantastic Beasts stands as a strong own story with own new original characters that don't need to stand in the shadow of another more popular one. They are newly created characters with an own new personality, making it the more fun to experience them for the first time without having to make any unnecessary comparisons.
Also it doesn't hurt that the movie boasts a surprising amount of good twists and turns that even HP fans might not necessarily see coming - again since the twists are unrelated to previous Harry Potter lore.

"Was that a Harry Potter reference?" - ""

Nevertheless, the main show in Fantastic Beasts are the beasts themselves, or to be more precise, the imagination of J.K.Rowling herself. And she sure shows, that she still has a lot of creative stories to share.
Fantastic Beasts stands true to its title and offers a wide variety of fascinating creatures. From the cuddly and very funny kleptomanic Niffler to the beautiful but dangerous Occamy, there are just as many "cute" creatures as there are "badass" or simply "cool" creatures to experience in the movie. And while the creatures make for many great and memorable set-pieces and all have a certain unique feature or aspect about them that makes each of them stand out, the creatures overall also do a great service of driving the movie's central moral theme home. Thus, while at first all of the creatures really feel dangerous and vicious, more and more throughout the course of the movie it gets clear that proper care, respect and tolerance for them is what makes a coexistence with them possible in that magical world.
Also of course the effects and creature designs themselves are top notch.   

One of the most standout creatures is the fun kleptomanic Niffler.

Along with the new setting of New York also comes and entirely new set of characters and actors for the movie. Actually, Fantastic Beasts doesn't even have one single character or actor from one of the previous Harry Potter movies involved, yet it also really doesn't need to considering the amount of great characters already in it.
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander was a great casting choice for the character. Without feeling like a Harry Potter knockoff, Newt feels like a goodhearted yet socially awkward person who really does feel like someone who knows more about beasts and how to treat them than he does with actual other people - giving great way to his eventual character development throughout the movie. He is both charming, goodhearted, yet also awkward and weird to just the right amount to make it fun having him as the main protagonist of the adventure.

Newt is a new protagonist that luckily doesn't feel like Harry at all.

He is accompanied not only by the numerous beasts in his briefcase but most notably also a newfound No-Maj (or Muggle) human sidekick - Jacob Kowalski played by Dan Fogler.
It is absolutely safe to say that even though Jacob obviously serves as the relatable "audience character" in the movie, without his presence, the entire movie would instantly lose not only most of its humor but also a lot of emotional weight that balances out its darker themes. Being a good hearted man, who gets accidentally thrown into the adventure, he is also a key figure to Newt's character development and makes for many nicely comedic as well as surprsingly sad moments in the movie. What is especially great about him is that Fogler never plays him as a dumb fat comedy relief character, but actually someone who thinks and helps out the other protagonists rather than just being somebody who busts out gags constantly. Just well rounded, balanced and absolutely likable.
Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski really steals the show most of the time.

Furthermore, other notable characters in the movie include Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein - a witch and worker for the Ministry of Magic who sadly though is forced to work an office job below her skill level. She is the down-to-earth counterpart to Newt's oftentimes outrageous and law-breaking plans and actions to get his beasts back and make everything "right" again. While she feels very annoying, stuck up and unlikable at first, she actually has to feel that way to emphasize her development to a more balanced person of her own over the course of the movie - realizing that law and justice aren't always the same thing. Yet she also gets likable of course towards the end of the movie in her own way.

The other two female protagonists nicely round up the team.

Last but not least, Colin Farrell as Percival Graves should be noted - a high ranking Auror of the Magical Security in New York who investigates the case of Newt's escaped beasts all the while plotting his own mysterious plans for them. While neither the movie nor the marketing make it a big secret that Colin Farrell's character is a shady one with evil intentions, talking too much about him would maybe spoil something about the movie's most surprising and interesting plot points and twists. Nevertheless it can be said that Colin does a servicable yet not outstanding job as Graves. While audiences will definitely buy into his role, Farrell does little to make the character very memorable in Fantastic Beasts - especially in comparison to other plot points in the movie or the beasts themselves. But all in all still okay.

Colin has a bit of a hard time to truely stand out in the movie.

Overall, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fantastic spin-off to the already great Harry Potter franchise yet is also a highly enjoyable movie all on its own.
Without relying on any unnecessary connections or comparisons to the Harry Potter movies, Fantastic Beasts tells a very own story with new themes and greatly cast characters that nevertheless feel belonging to the big Potter-universe by J.K.Rowling.
Making it especially work well with both young and older Potter fans, Fantastic Beasts skillfully features and slowly combines its more comedic and adventurous plot with its darker and more serious one over the course of the movie, leading to a well transitioned big conclusive finale. This is additionally spiced up with some nice twists and turns throughout the story that will surprise both Potter fans and non-Potter fans alike.
Yet the big main show of course are the numerous very creatively designed creatures that Newt and his charismatic friends try to recapture. Not only do they make for many memorable and very entertaining set-pieces but they also do a great job of emphasizing the movie's core messages over the course of the adventure.

Considering that this is already the ninth "Harry Potter movie" and that it turns out to be one of the best movies of this year is really a testament to both the impressive imagination and skills of both director David Yates and author J.K.Rowling. Fantastic Beasts does an amazing job of entertaining with the same emotional weight as well as visual magic and spectacle of the franchise as before yet without feeling like a rehash of the Harry Potter formula. It's an all around very well made and highly entertaining movie that strongly stands on its own and that instantly raises the expectations for its already announced four sequels.

Final Verdict: 9 out of 10


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