So I went to the movies in the first time in, well, months. In all honesty, despite being a huge Harry Potter fan, I wasn’t bursting at the seams with excitement when I heard this movie was being made. Sure, I liked the cute little tie-in book, but I wasn’t sure how well it would translate to the screen, and after reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a review for another day) my confidence in JKR’s script-writing abilities wasn’t very high. Nonetheless, I caved, and I took my sister to see the film over the weekend.
It’s not Harry Potter – but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. As soon as the opening credits came up on screen, I felt like a child again, buzzing in my seat with excitement whenever I went to see the latest HP movie. And perhaps because it wasn’t based on a novel-series source, but background material instead, that’s why I think this spin-off film as a whole came together well and holds up as fine movie in its own right.
Well. For the most part. Spoilers below.
Newt Scamandar, portrayed wonderfully by Eddie Redmayne, arrives in New York in the 1920s with a suitcase full of magical creatures – and those magical creatures quickly begin to wreak havoc in the streets and alerting No-Maj (American terminology for Muggle) persons to the existence of the secret magical community. Unfortunately, this havoc is being wreaked at a bad time – anti-magical sentiment is at an all-time high, between the distant threat of Gellert Grindelwald and the closer-to-home No-Maj group Second Salemers. Enter former Auror Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, who is fast on Newt’s tail, and No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (a highlight of the film) who has become tangled up in the whole mess of things.
There are two plots going on in this film. The first is Newt’s quest to round up all of the magical beasts that have escaped his suitcase. Eddie Redmayne is shaping up to be one of this generation’s finest young actors, and it’s terribly easy to fall in love with his socially-awkward, animal-loving Newt Scamandar. Also a delight is Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj who just wants to set up a bakery, and who stole the scene every time he was on camera.
But the stand-out performance was, by far, Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, taking the lead on the second much, much darker plot. Graves is the Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, who has ‘befriended’ a young, troubled No-Maj boy in the Second Salemers group, in order to find a very powerful, magical child. Farrell captured the intensity, power, elegance and charisma you would expect from a high-ranking Auror. His scenes with Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, who is similarly fantastic) are amongst the best – and most uncomfortable – scenes in the entire film.
Which is why – and if you haven’t seen the film and do not wish to be spoiled, please click back now – it’s such an utter, crushing disappointment to find out that he was Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald all along.
It’s not really a secret anymore that Johnny Depp was cast as Grindelwald. I for one was very disappointed with the casting. Johnny Depp was a good actor once, but after his recent slew of flops and his recent domestic violence accusations (which he did not deny), I can’t reconcile his self-parodying acting with someone who could plausibly pull off a compelling villain, let alone the man that Albus Dumbledore was in love with in his youth.
So the ending is where the movie falls apart. Not only does it recycle the Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody/Barty Crouch Jnr plot twist from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it simply doesn’t make sense. Would we really expect Grindelwald – the magical world’s equivalent of Hitler – to disguise himself as an American Auror for who knows how many months, doing paperwork and arresting people? I certainly can’t. But the largest conflict is when you look at Colin Farrell’s menacing but refined performance as morally ambiguous Percival Graves. I tried to mentally replace Johnny Depp’s (very odd-looking, very hammy) Grindelwald with Colin Farrell’s distinguished Graves in every single scene he was in, and I cannot mesh the two acting styles. Depp does not possess the gravitas, or the intensity, or the subtlety to pull off the role that Colin Farrell did.
So yes, I’m very disappointed. The threat of Grindelwald was enough to kick-start a fantastic five-movie series; unfortunately, committing myself to seeing the other films means committing myself to watching Johnny Depp butcher the role that Colin Farrell mastered, and I’m not prepared to sit through something like that.
Overall, the movie was good. It took a while for the two plots to merge, but I enjoyed them both independently and together. The huge let-down of the ending aside, I’m glad I saw this movie in cinema. I want to look forward to more. I want to see more of Newt Scamandar’s adventures; I want to see more of adorable Jacob Kowalski and his bakery, and his budding romance with Queenie Goldstein (Tina’s sister).
But most of all, I wanted to see more of Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves. Hell, I would have loved to see Colin Farrell as Grindelwald. Trading him in for Depp’s Grindelwald is such a poor deal that I’m not sure I want to tune in for the rest of the series.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a delightful film that is simultaneously light and dark in all the right places. It draws you right back into the world of magic, but uniquely different from the UK-based 1990s magical world of the Harry Potter novels. It feels like coming home.
But endings, I guess, are just not JKR’s strong suit.