Co-written by JK Rowling and long-time Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, Fantastic Beasts is the third in a five-movie extension of Warner Bros’ ‘Wizarding World’ franchise. While it’s the weakest, most rambling so far, it also delivers rich, immersive and thrilling moments – and offers loads to love and laugh at.
The first two movies tracked the rise of dark wizard Grindelwald in 1920s NYC and Paris. Now it's 1930s London, Berlin, and, weirdly, Bhutan, as Grindelwald, like his real-world counterpart Hitler, steps up his power grab.
Despite lots of trademark brilliant inventive flourishes, the core plot stinks. Grindelwald can see the future, so Dumbledore assembles a plucky gang of heroes: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), his furry duck-billed mole and stick-man accomplices, his bro Theseus (Callum Turner), that sweet New Yoick baker from the first movie, and some random newbies (one of whom is called Bunty). It gives them overlapping secret instructions to ‘confuse’ Grindelwald – and everyone else as well. These involve the gang swooping off to Bhutan with five identical brown suitcases, one of which may or may not contain a cute magical baby deer that can see people’s souls. It’s a ton of fun, but it lacks substance, menace, emotional heft. Often, it lacks sense too.
The cast is ace, especially Redmayne: I hope his career as Wizarding World’s young David Attenborough lasts as long as his muggle counterpart’s has. One hilarious scene has Newt and his uptight big brother escaping from a horde of magical scorpion crabs teaching them to salsa, sideways: British stiff upper lips plus Latin wiggling hips = comic bliss.
Jude Law, though, is miscast as the young Dumbledore, haunted by his dead sister and a youthful love affair with Grindelwald. He does pretty well despite this, but where was Mark Rylance on casting day? This is essentially the wizard’s coming-out movie and it’s a shame that subtlety and depth are missing, especially given the large YA audience that will see it. There are no secrets about Dumbledore that we don’t already know, and he’s a vacuum at the centre of a story which needed a beating heart.
The gentle humour and truly fantastical beasties will make for an appealing escape for kids and kidults alike
The movie is haunted by the ghosts of the cancelled. As Grindelwald, the genuinely European villain Mads Mikkelsen makes a fantastically sinister replacement for Johnny Depp, dropped following dark behaviour. (More Mads, please!) And fans are speculating wildly that former franchise star Katherine Waterston – seen for about 20 seconds here and hardly at all in the film’s promotion – has been demoted in this instalment after publicly rebuking Rowling for You Know What.
That’s another story, though. And this movie, with its gentle humour, japes, and truly fantastical beasties, is an appealing escape for kids and kidults alike. Even at its weakest, the Potterverse – with its magic, mayhem, and world class ability to create imaginary worlds of epic sweep and a million tiny details – retains its transportive power. Go see this one at the cinema where the big screen and sound will wrap you in a warm, magical duvet of delight.
Out in Australian cinemas Apr 7, in the UK and Hong Kong Apr 8, in Singapore Apr 14 and the US Apr 15.