Over the festive period I ended up re-watching most of the Harry Potter films, out of order but with a lot of love, and I got to thinking about Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and how I’ve heard a LOT of people say they loved it “perhaps more than the original Potter films’.

For my part, I approached Fantastic Beasts with caution. I am changeable in my assessment of Eddie Redmayne, sometimes I think he’s just brilliant (The Theory of Everything) and other times I feel decidedly meh towards him (Les Misèrables, My Week with Marilyn) so I had reservations there, and, let’s be honest, wasn’t everyone a BIT worried about a three (now five) film franchise born out of a comic relief tie in book? Especially after the disgustingly cynical treatment of The Hobbit, I expected to see some good CGI beasts and a bit of the milking of the Potter cash cow.

How wrong I was! Fantastic Beasts is a great movie. Granted, my fears about Eddie Redmayne as Newt weren’t totally unfounded, he was too blinky by half and a pretty nothing character really, also I know the mating dance with the rhinobeastie was mostly there for a bit of tension relief and for the younger viewers, but it was a bit EDDIE’S COMMITING TO THE MOMENT / A-level Drama for me… or maybe it was just because I saw this picture and it’s more Eddie’s annoying public schoolboyness than Newt’s dancing…

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Anyway – otherwise I was totally WRONG, hats off and apologies to JK Rowling, I should have known the writer who had the integrity to keep Haley I see dead people Joel Osment from playing Harry Potter and insisted on British and Irish actors be cast, wouldn’t let her franchise go to the dark side. She has got a really exciting new series on her hands here and I think the further films can only get better.

Aside from Redmayne as Newt – he was fine nothing exciting really, the rest of the cast were uniformly excellent. It took me a good two thirds of the film before I recognised Ezra Miller (I silently said ‘Isn’t that KEVIN?’) as creepy, abused Credence, he really is brilliant and perfectly cast. New to me (new to everyone?) Katherine Waterston was lovely, totally believable as fallen-from-favour witch Tina, we cared because she cared and I particularly enjoyed the contrast between her and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), their dress, manner and ambition were polar opposites, but we absolutely believe they are family. It’s so heartening to see more and more properly written roles for women. Talking of women, massive shout out to the always excellent Samantha Morton, I so wanted more of the Second Salemers – this society is an example of where you can feel Morton and JK’s work behind the scenes, with very little screen time we can imagine a whole history for this woman and for the society – perhaps we might see this history in future films – fingers crossed. I enjoyed Colin Farrell, managing to keep his 20’s wizard-in-spats on the right side of dark and last, but by no means least, wonderful work by Dan Fogler, as our guide through the American wizarding world, the hapless no-mag Kowalski. The gorgeous electrical attraction between Kowalski and Queenie was one of my favourite scenes.

And of course the beasts – I must give Redmayne recognition for making me totally believe in the Niffler and the Bowtruckle particularly – all beautifully imagined and realised and the CGI never feeling like a computer game (yes I am looking at you The Hobbit). I really LOVED the Niffler, capturing all the reasons we love our pets, a creature with a full personality.

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The twists were good, the dark bits were PROPERLY dark and like the unfurling darkness in Harry Potter, kept you thinking after the film was over, JK has big ideas and the more you think about them the bigger they get. If you buy into them (and if you don’t why are you here) part of the reason the Harry Potter universe endures is down to these deep ideas. For example, the horcruxes in Harry Potter, on the surface are there to explain Voldemort’s immortality and to give a nice framing of ‘quest’ for our 3 protagonists,  but if you stop and just consider the actual premise, that when you kill your soul splits, that’s wonderful stuff. Not to mention all the exploration of themes from slavery, bullying to prejudice, fear, segregation etc. This was the other thing I really liked about Fantastic Beasts, the THIS IS AMERICA feel to it, I thought Newt’s seemingly throwaway comments on the differences were JK at her best, comedic or throwaway lines that actually have a huge message. When Newt questions ‘no-mag’ as a term, muggles suddenly becomes so wonderfully British and affectionate, and the incredibly clever line that implies the US wizarding is deeply prejudice, when Newt says how silly it is that wizards and witches don’t marry outside their own.

So in sum I really enjoyed it, BUT is this film better than the original Harry Potters? Only time will tell, but I think there are three reasons Fantastic Beasts FEELS better and why people are coming out of the cinema going ‘I enjoyed it more’.

Reason number ONE:

No bad child / tween / teen actors. Let’s be honest, Harry, Ron and Hermione all have beautiful moments of acting across the Harry Potter films, but they also have a lot of utter awfulness. Forgiveable when they are delightful little moppets but some of Daniel Radcliffe’s hungover faxing it in performances of Harry in the later movies is really dreadful. And the surrounding cast, Ginny really does make you want to stick sharp spoons in your eyes, although as my husband pointed out she does have dreadful script to work with… ANYWAY. In Fantastic Beasts you have an adult cast of excellent actors and they are all properly enjoying themselves at the top of their game. Imagine Harry Potter with just the adults, Rickman, Smith, Oldman etc all doing some stellar work with no wooden snogging exposition scenes – picture that and you’re getting Fantastic Beasts.

Reason number TWO:

We already know the universe. Newt has a suitcase that has a whole world inside. Not a problem, don’t explain it to us, just show us and we understand. The Harry Potter films have laid all the ground work for us buying in and understanding everyone saying silly words and waving sticks around, so we can just jump straight in with Newt doing magic and apparating all round the bank, no problem! Just like The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first Potter film where they did away with the ‘repetition of the plot in case you forgot what you watched’ scenes, Fantastic Beasts gives you a few newspaper headlines (I still adore this as a method of introduction, never change David Yates) so you know WHEN you are and then we are off. Having an established universe to play in is so much more fun and arguably makes for a better film.

Reason number THREE:

We don’t know what is going to happen. I know, I KNOW, there are many people that only saw the Harry Potter movies and did not read the books, BUT there are many SURELY more that read, re-read, read to others and talked about the books in great detail long before the films were made. This will always affect enjoyment of a film, especially films of the blockbuster variety. Watching a new version of a Jane Austen we are excited for what a particular actor will do to a well-known character, it’s like watching Hamlet.  But imagine SEEING some of the gasp moments in the Harry Potter books for the first time on a big 80ft screen. The ‘oh I liked how they did that moment on the astronomy tower’ becomes ‘WHAT THE VERY… I KNEEEEEWWWW IT SNAPE YOU BASTARD’. And that element of surprise and reveal is why Fantastic Beasts feels better.

A genuinely great cinema experience, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, also promises a great re-watch to come and the birth of a very exciting franchise. Enjoy! #nifflertillIdie