Of Erumpents and Nifflers – JK Rowling starts us off on the new Fantastic Beasts series

J.K. Rowling makes her debut as scriptwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film set in her beloved Harry Potter universe. Arriving 5 years after the final film in the original series, this one is set in the 1920’s in New York City, thereby giving Potter fans a fresh setting and new characters, while still staying in familiar thematic territory.

The film is inspired by the book of the same name which Ms. Rowling published in 2001, which purported to be one of the first year text books in the Hogwarts curriculum written by a ‘magizoologist’ named Newt Scamander. There is no story in this book; it’s just a reference compendium of all the magical creatures which exist in the world of Harry Potter. Like all good world-builders, Ms. Rowling had made extensive notes and backstories on each of the creatures and then decided to publish it as a reference guide for fans of the series. This is similar to what J.R.R. Tolkien’s son had done in the 1970’s by publishing The Silmarillion, which was a compilation of all the detailed background notes which Tolkien had created for his The Lord of the Rings books.

So, for this new movie series, Ms. Rowling decided to tell the story of Newt Scamander and his love of magical beasts which led him to publish his book.

I enjoyed the movie. Needless to say it is a top-of-the-line Hollywood production, both technically speaking – production design, visual effects, cinematography and music – and in terms of people and performances – the casting, acting and chemistry between the actors.

The real standouts in the movie are the new American actors. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (the American term for muggles) who inadvertently gets swept up into Newt Scamander’s adventures in NYC. He is the ‘everyman’ foil to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the nerdy Scamander, giving the audience the right cues to gape in wonder at the magical world, just as a pre-teen Daniel Radcliffe did in the first Harry Potter movie. Then there’s American singer-songwriter Alison Sudol in her first major big-screen role playing the very likable and charismatic Queenie Goldstein, one half of the Goldstein witch sisters who work at MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic). These two along with Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston (who plays Queenie’s sister Tina) are going to be at the centre of this five-film series just as Harry, Ron and Hermione were in the original series.

So let’s make sure we remember these four characters, shall we? Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein, Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalksi.

In terms of the various ‘fantastic beasts’ in the movie, I loved the scenes featuring the Niffler and the Erumpent. The Niffler is a platypus-like creature which has a propensity to steal anything shiny and put it away into its apparently bottomless magical pouch. The Erumpent is a rhinoceros-like creature and there is a hilarious scene in Central Park in which Scamander and Kowlaski try to capture an escaped Erumpent which happens to be in mating season.

In spite of all these great ingredients, what’s missing is a strong story. This is such an irony considering that the scriptwriter is none other than the creator of Harry Potter. I have read every book written by J.K. Rowling, including the deliciously dark The Casual Vacancy and the three crime novels published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. All her books have likable characters (except The Casual Vacancy, of course) and she captures their emotions and motivations so realistically. Most of all, the stories themselves are compelling; we are eager as readers to turn the page and find out what happens next, and we have a clear idea of what the hero’s ultimate quest is. In this case, I discovered that I didn’t really care why Scamander was in New York. The individual character interactions and scenes are entertaining, but there is (not yet) a sense of an overall journey.

Perhaps it might have been a good idea for Ms. Rowling to actually publish a novel to base this film on, one that subjects itself to the rigor of her tried and tested storywriting process.

In any case, the movie is bound to be a big success and the next film in the series will surely feature a young Albus Dumbledore and his nemesis Gellert Grindelwald (who appears briefly in this film). The films are currently scheduled to be released every two years, all of them directed by David Yates who also directed the last 4 Harry Potter films. Given that his cinematic retelling of the Tarzan story was a flop this summer, it’s just as well that Mr.Yates has secured a steady job until well into the 2020’s!

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