Is there anything worse than being at the movies beside a Chatty Cathy with three kids and a drink who won’t stop talking and flailing about? Yes, I know. Famine, outbreaks, homelessness, Alzheimer’s, the Syrian war, I’m an entitled spoiled brat complaining about minutiae. Still, it’s a bloody theatre. Has civilization so declined we are no longer able to stay calm and collected for two and a half hours? Of all the seats in all the theatre, she chooses the one beside mine. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, indeed.
But all sound and fury melted away about ten minutes into the movie. Any apprehensions I had about this being like The Hobbit – a fairly thin tome stretched into three movies just to make money – disappeared as it became increasingly clear that this was not to be. The book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a small encyclopedic compendium about magical animals; the movie is a different beast entirely.
It’s got the satisfying smack of reading a Harry Potter book, with the added bonus of visuals and a soundtrack. It’s especially rewarding not knowing anothing about the story other than that Newt Scamander is a “magizoologist” who has invested a lifetime in the research of and care for rare magical animals, which he conveniently carries around in his magical suitcase. It’s as if J.K. Rowling decided to skip writing the book entirely and just focus on bringing the story to life on the silver screen.
Eddie Redmayne plays Newt like a long lost cousin of Neville Longbottom – complete with awkward facial tics, the inability to look anyone in the eye, and his obvious preference for the company of animals over that of humans. He’s a genius when it comes to magic creatures but clueless when it comes to relationships. Redmayne is an actor who is capable of showcasing human pathos in the most endearing way possible, but the real scene stealers in the movie turn out to be your standard odd couple: the luminous Legilimens Queenie Goldstein, who falls for the bumbling but affable Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj (read: American for Muggle) whose lifelong dream is to own his own bakery. Sorry, Niffler. You and your kleptomania only come second, cuteness bedamned. Also, I was more invested in the romance between Queenie and Jacob than I was in Newt and Queenie’s sister Porpentina. The two are clearly meant to have the beginnings of a Great Love, but Tina is too pinched, too repressed and Newt too unsure of himself. Rowling has always been good at letting her secondary characters shine when it comes to love; Hermione and Ron (and Hermione and Viktor Krum) were always light years more interesting than Harry and that boring wimp Cho Chang or even Harry and the iron-willed Ginny Weasley.
Too many movies these days are based on books or graphic novels, so we go into the theatre knowing the outcome. This, for me, was like seeing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time – I hadn’t read the books, didn’t know what to expect, and emerged from the theatre giddy, mind completely blown, happily feeling young again for all of two and a half hours. It’s a movie that assumes the viewer already knows about the world of Harry Potter, and while it does its own bit of world-building, doesn’t bother over-explaining certain things, which is refreshing. Yes, it’s still a tent pole designed to keep money rolling in for the next five years, but that’s how it is with most major movie franchises and this one clearly shows that Rowling isn’t even halfway done telling stories about the wizarding world she created.