This post is spoiler free.
If there is anything the last couple of years of blockbusters have proven, it’s that nostalgia is a licence to print money. The big franchises of yesteryear have pretty much all made a return in one way or another, and almost all of them, from Force Awakens to Jurassic World to Terminator Gynysys and The Hobbit Trilogy were heavily built around harkening back to as many favourite moments from their respective originals as possible. The filmmakers called these moments ‘tributes’ and in some cases they worked. But the prevailing problem with all of the above was that they overloaded on pandering to the extent that they barely managed to tell their own stories. Force Awakens and Jurassic World were essentially remakes. Terminator spent half its running time recreating scenes from the first film and the rest of it being a total mess. The Hobbit went out of its way to reference or recreate so many iconic moments from Lord of the Rings that it retroactively diluted the original. In fact, the only belated sequel that has managed to feel like its own thing was Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that did nothing for me but I can still respect for what it is.
Basically, Hollywood is currently ruled by two trends; nostalgia and cinematic universes. Star Wars is the prime example of both being capitalised on to the arguable detriment of the story, and all evidence was pointing to Harry Potter doing the same. It didn’t help that The Cursed Child, like all of the above, was more interested in cheap fan service and endless references to favourite moments from Goblet of Fire than doing anything new with the story, and as a result felt like the absolute nadir of the above trends, one that actually did lasting damage to a previously strong brand. It was enough to justify expecting the worst from any future ventures into the Wizarding World.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did not look promising. The trailers, with their emphasis on referencing Dumbledore and Grindelwald and heavy use of the iconic theme song, seemed about as pandering as could be. And with the recent announcement that we’d be getting five films at two year intervals, everything about this screamed of using lingering warmth for the Potter world to create a whole new Marvel style franchise. Walking into Fantastic Beasts, I was ready for it to be dreadful.
But here is a very simple fact; JK Rowling is one of the best storytellers working today. While The Cursed Child, on which she had a story credit, may seem to disprove that, look at the way she turned a small town into a fascinating cesspool of spite and intrigue in her underrated The Casual Vacancy, or how she is currently writing an exceptional, clever, warm ongoing crime series with her brilliant Cormoran Strike books. I don’t know what went so wrong with Cursed Child, but currently it’s the only creative failure her name is connected to, and as such it was wrong to assume the worst of her further endeavours based on that. Fantastic Beasts is resounding proof of my mistake.
It’s not the best film ever. But it is very good. And it’s a lesson in how to create something fresh out of a pre-existing property. Connections to the broader saga are there, but crucially, they are not the film’s primary concern, and when they do come they feel organic and part of the story. Front and centre, as the title suggests, are Newt Scamander and his fantastic beasts and it’s in these that the film shines with a passion and love that sets it above so many other cynical blockbusters. There is a childlike wonder and delight that permeates the whole film every time the beasts come to the forefront, and I spent a lot of it with a big grin on my face and a feeling of warmth towards everything happening on screen. Add an endearing (if slightly underdeveloped) quartet of heroes, an ever present but not overwhelming sense of darkness, and a couple of twists that made me gasp out loud, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is more than just a solid return to a well-loved universe; it’s quite simply a good film in its own right that never once feels pandering, cynical, or like a retread of things we’ve already seen. It even pulls off that seemingly long forgotten trick of making a franchise-starter feel like a complete story that would be fondly remembered even if there weren’t four sequels still to come. And in an era where almost every blockbuster is full of frustrating loose ends designed to ensure people turn up for the next one, seeing a big budget franchise film that feels complete is more than a novelty; it’s almost revolutionary.
This is the kind of template cinematic universes should try to follow. Don’t hold back on resolution for the sake of a sequel. Don’t treat every film like an episode in a bigger TV series. Give us a satisfying story that makes us feel like we’ve got our money’s worth and we’ll be more than happy to come back for more. In short, respect your audience and don’t assume they’ll turn up purely because they recognise the property (looking at you DC).
Maybe the main reason for success here is the Rowling factor. The current Star Wars franchise feels decided on by committee, as if people sat around and discussed what fans would most like to see. The Marvel films are the same; entertaining and well-made but disposable and free of any lingering impact. Fantastic Beasts, however, feels like part of somebody’s creative vision. And that is rare in blockbusters nowadays.
This doesn’t absolve the Potter franchise of cynicism elsewhere. After all, last I heard every copy of Cursed Child has yet to be recalled for pulping. But it’s a big stride in the right direction. Hopefully all the other franchise heavy hitters are watching.