I was quite expecting a fitting title for a blog entry on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to be "unremarkable films and where to find them". But as it happens, I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts far more than I expected, though it's hard to explain why. After all, I'm more interested in relationships between the human characters in any given story than in any searching for and gawping over animals, fantastic or otherwise. The film's characterisation is sketchy and the plot isn't up to much - one of the plot twists is a cheat, as one of the few facts we are told about a certain magic phenomenon turns out to be untrue. And yet, the film has charm. It sets up the stall for a new five-film saga (quintology?) nicely, and I actually have some hope of liking these films more than I did the original Harry Potter ones.
For one, the protagonists, though we don't get any in-depth insights into their psyche, seem a sweet bunch. Newt Scamander, the hero, may be very much wedded to the task of looking after magical beasties, but this far he's endearingly nerdish rather than a moralistic magical-animal-rights crusader. His love interest Tina may start their acquaintance off by arresting him, but what could have been an annoying "what have you done you foolish man" storyline becomes something more sympathetic as we realise that she is almost as out of her depth as he is. Jacob Kowalski, the Ordinary Joe who gets sucked into the adventure when his briefcase is mixed up with Newt's fantastic-beast-filled one, may not have much else to do than to stare wonderingly with his mouth open, but you still buy the premise that he's a man who tends to be liked (while Newt is often found annoying). Instead of wasting the audience's time by complaining, like so many inadvertently-sucked-into-adventure characters do, Kowalski just goes with it, loving every minute of the magic derring-do and befriending Newt, Tina and her glamorous sister Queenie - especially Queenie - in no time.
I have less problems with this hero quartet so far than I had with the Harry Potter trio. Harry had no chance of living up to the hype, and had a tendency to gloat over his enemies' misfortunes - witness his glee over Dudley falling into the snake tank at the zoo or over Draco being turned into a ferret - that wasn't entirely dignified in someone with Chosen One status (I'm pretty sick of the Chosen One plot-line by now, as it creates unnecessary fuss over ordinary, flawed characters who would be more bearable as one good guy among many). Ron, whom I found quite funny at first, got increasingly irritating. He certainly didn't deserve Hermione, the best of the bunch as a dedicated swot who was dismayed when the yearly exams were cancelled "in celebration" (what kind of sub-standard educational institution is Hogwarts anyway?). But even Hermione could be tiresome when caught in "goodness will prevail" slanging matches with the bad guys - not that the villain banter they countered with was much to write home about either. Newt and Co. don't set out to be heroes - they simply want to make sure Newt's critters are all right - which makes them, so far at least, less self-righteous than Harry's team.
How do the villains compare then? Well, the jury's still out here. I loved Colin Farrell as the sinister chief of police Graves, but it doesn't look as if this will be a repeat performance. I had hoped to learn a little more about the head villain, Gellert Grindelwald, but we don't really. Grindelwald is a wizard who's mentioned in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films, but not much beyond that - they're so tight-lipped about him that much of the back-story in which he is a significant player remains a mystery for viewers like me, who haven't read the books. It's not even made clear that he's a dark wizard, only that he was chummy with Dumbledore at one time. So what happened? Did he turn bad, or was he bad all the time and fooled Dumbledore (which it's hardly impossible to do)? Were he and Dumbledore lovers? Was that Dumbledore's "dark secret" which Rita Skeeter wrote about, but which we're never told about although we actually see Hermione reading the book? C'mon, spill!
What we learn about Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts is that we wants to wage an all-out war on non-magic folk, or "no-majes"as they're called stateside (better than "muggles", anyway). As the locals are more hostile than in Europe and the resident wizard council is set on keeping all use of magic underground so as not to provoke them, you can see his point in a way, but it makes for a boring, impersonal villain motive. Grindelwald as glimpsed on photographs in the Deathly Hallows films was arrestingly handsome in his youth, which makes Johnny Depp's ravaged appearance in the role a disappointment. Even at his cutest, Depp has another kind of good looks than the Hallows heartbreaker, and he is far from his cutest here. As for the magic-hating "Second Salemers", they make Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist look like a subtle character study. However, let's remember that the original Harry Potter villains, though they looked the part, weren't always as skilled at the actual mischief-making. The Malfoys in particular were what Miss Denker in Downton would call "merely ornamental" (what ornaments, though). Anyway, Grindelwald and his followers won't have to try as hard as all that to outdo Voldemort and his not-so-merry men.
With the stunning setting of 1920s New York - complete with magic touches like speakeasys owned by goblins - likeable if somewhat thin characters and well-CGIed magic creatures, Fantastic Beasts has surprisingly much going for it. I'll actually make sure to watch the next film in the cinema too: those sweeping camera angles alone make it worthwhile not to simply wait for the DVD.