Myke: Decades before Harry Potter becomes a thorn in Voldemort’s side, another wizard sets sail for 1920s New York. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a mystical naturalist, devoted to tracking down near-extinct fantastic beasts and then, well, locking them in his suitcase. Of course, there’s more to said suitcase than meets the eye. Its TARDIS-like dimensions make it a lightweight ark for magical critters – and a mobile home for our awkward, mumbling hero. Sadly, the latch is none too reliable. Newt is barely off the boat before his beastly charges escape for a private tour of the Big Apple, landing him in hot water with the local wizarding community.
Hari: I loved Fantastic Beasts. It’s fun, it’s fresh, and it’s downright scary at times – the perfect ingredients for adults who aren’t too grown up and kids with excellent taste. The beasts are marvellous bursts of colour against the drabness of a Manhattan still recovering from World War I, and Newt’s wilful insistence on trusting people and things that are a little bit dangerous is a joyful contrast to the climate of suspicion that permeated the era. This is going to be a sleeper hit, as much as one can say that for a franchise now in its ninth film – it’s a project that didn’t need to happen, one that didn’t need to have the love and care put into it to be as good as it is, and it’s a marvellous treat that it exists at all.
M: What’s most remarkable about this Harry Potter spin-off, scripted by author J.K. Rowling, is how full-blooded it feels. There’s no sense of cash-in or afterthought and, while it draws on the established mythology, it’s very much its own creature. Yes, it’s still firmly a family film (and one of the year’s best), but it feels more Indiana Jones than The BFG. Child characters are kept to a minimum, the tone is playful but grim, and there’s an all-too-topical undercurrent of fascism and intolerance. Rather than a flimsy postscript to past glories, this feels like a bold reinvention of a much-loved franchise.
H: Absolutely – Rowling’s debut as a screenwriter is assured, replete with the delicious details and twists we’ve come to expect from her prose. Harry Potter has permeated the cultural consciousness to the point that she can rely on a certain shorthand, one that makes the film feel rich and full; long-time readers (or watchers) don’t have to have Apparation or Alohomora explained, but the spells and script are exciting and intuitive enough to enthral even newcomers. It also expertly avoids the trap of the Star Wars prequels, which linked everything together so tightly that the galaxy felt so very small – if the magic of Harry Potter was that there was another world running parallel to ours, the magic of Fantastic Beasts is that there are still more worlds to be discovered.
M: Agreed, I loved that it broadened the canvas. I also loved that it fed furiously (like a beast, even) on pop culture in the same way that the Harry Potter books gorged on the works of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Richmal Crompton. It’s a film that manages to remind you of films and television you know and love – not in a crass, commercial fashion, but more by way of celebration. Here, J.K. trades cosy mysteries for pulpy spy thrillers and throws in hints of everything from The Untouchables to Ghostbusters. That said, the most obvious influence here appears to be the rebooted Doctor Who. From his clothes to his mannerisms, Eddie Redmayne’s rather effete and ethereal Newt seems to gleefully borrow from Matt Smith’s take on the Time Lord. I have no problem with this.
H: Newt seemed a bit of a cipher, really. He’s basically Hagrid by way of Hugh Grant – much tinier and much better dressed, but otherwise it’s the same origin story, getting expelled from Hogwarts for caring more about the comforts of creatures than the safety of schoolmates only to have Albus Dumbledore stick up for him. The character work is where the film stumbles, I thought. Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein is a disgraced Auror, but one filled with timidity rather than righteous fury. Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol work well as a sweetly star-crossed couple, but once again we have the trope of a beautiful woman falling for a schlubby guy. They’re small missteps, but missteps nevertheless. The baddies are uniformly excellent, however, but we’ll leave those surprises for the cinema.
M: Before we move on from Newt, I feel I should say I was genuinely impressed that Eddie treated him as a character part. As you say, he’s basically a cipher. A star part. But Eddie pretty much gives him as much craft as he gave Stephen Hawking … whether the writing deserves it or not. I didn’t mind Tina’s timidity. She and Newt are well-matched in their gentle decency, which matters because the world around them is rapidly giving way to darkness and violence. Even the supposed good guys – the international wizarding congress – seem monstrous in the hard-hearted bureaucracy. And this is interesting.
To some extent, the magical community is supposed to be a metaphor for the marginalised people in our own world. But the climax doesn’t reflect well on them. It would be easy to identify instead with Jon Voight’s Trump-analogue (who is trying to reveal the truth the wizards are keeping hidden) or even the big baddie’s fascistic spiel.
H: There are a few dominoes set up here that will topple in later films, one suspects, the Shaw family (Jon Voight and co) included. And sure, there’s time and room for the characters to grow – they’re certainly blank enough. I did find it fascinating that Rowling went back to the well of muddled, harsh bureaucracy – the Harry Potter novels started out full of whimsy, but soon showed us that the wizarding world is as susceptible to institutionalised corruption and bigotry as our own.
Fantastic Beasts is also explicit about the dangers of marginalised people repressing the very thing that could free them, and having leaders who enforce that repression and a villain who seductively argues the opposite is going to see some sparks fly. It’s looking likely that the series will end in 1945, which is when Dumbledore and Grindelwald fought their epic duel, and when you add that to the knowledge that subsequent Fantastic Beasts films will take us back to Europe, it’s likely that things will get very dark indeed. Rowling is adept at playing the long game, and I can’t wait to see what else she has in store.