In which J.K. Rowling abandons prose in order to take full control of the cinematic Potter-verse, Fantastic Beasts being the first film in the franchise not to be adapted from one of her novels but rather from an original screenplay. And while the cast and the setting might have changed – this being set the better part of a century before the class of Harry, and on the other side of the Atlantic – behind the cameras there’s enough continuity to make this business as unusual.
Hogwarts alumnus Newt Scamander arrives in New York in 1926 on a mission of mercy, but when magical creatures escape from his bigger-on-the-inside suitcase, he soon becomes associated with the mysterious incidents that have been causing chaos around the city. Dark secrets, strange beings and extensive destruction follow, until Rowling’s plot ties everything up in familiarly coherent and almost overwhelmingly spectacular, but nevertheless satisfying and consummately entertaining ways. More than anything, the end product resembles a prohibition-era superhero movie, complete with ditzy blonde and an underground bar – and although some not entirely welcome tonal shifts, between kiddie-friendly beast wrangling and wholly adult religious proscriptiveness, make it slightly unclear just where the audience for Fantastic Beasts was intended to be, the relationship Rowling has built up with Steve Kloves and director David Yates over the course of the Potter films means this new franchise begins with eminent assuredness.
Although it isn’t as light on its feet as it might be. While the American setting keeps the usual Rowling predilections from feeling too predictable, Yates’ cameras are maybe a bit over-fond of charging around, and the two leads are slightly saddled with quirks that mean their co-stars are actually more attractive to watch. Indeed, whether by accident or design it’s Dan Fogler’s muggle who is by far the easiest character with which to identify. Having said that, there isn’t an underwritten or weak performance to be seen. In some respects, this new series might even be an improvement on the originals, then.
In keeping with the supernatural theme, Yates’ New York feels like it’s almost entirely a CGI creation, and if the occasional disconnect between humans and computer generated wildlife might leave you pondering just how little of what you’re seeing is actually real, in general the effects make for an immersive experience. This is confident filmmaking of the first order, although whether you find it over-confident is perhaps down to how much you enjoyed the Harry Potters. Either way, Fantastic Beasts is funny (if not particularly witty), engaging (if not overly engrossing) and rewarding (if not especially substantial). It is thoroughly successful in achieving every aim it sets itself. But its ambition is limited by its forerunners.
Special Features: The Magizoologist / Meet the Fantastic Beasts
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: DAVID YEATES / SCREENPLAY: J.K. ROWLING / STARRING: EDDIE REDMAYNE, KATHERINE WATERSTON, DAN FOGLER, ALISON SUDOL, EZRA MILLER, SAMANTHA MORTON, JON VOIGHT, CARMEN EJOGO, RON PERLMAN, COLIN FARRELL / RELEASE DATE: 27TH MARCH