Harry Potter has come a long way since The Philosopher’s Stone spilled from the mind of then-aspiring author J.K Rowling, in The Elephant House café in Edinburgh. Rowling’s success with her literary creation has been multiplied by the following film adaptations, starting with 2001’s Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone and ending with 2011’s Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows - Part 2. Since this point, Potter has found success on the stage and in a variety of formats, so naturally it would be myopic to suggest that this world would never return to the big screen. Which brings us neatly onto Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, a spin-off-come-prequel to the Potter franchise inspired by Rowling’s 2001 book that she wrote under pseudonym Newt Scamander - who became a figure in the lore of this realm of wizardry. The book essentially looked at the various magic creatures and events surrounding the Harry Potter universe and, considering that this feature is the first of five films in a new pre-Potter film series, hopes are riding high on this being a big success.
Set back in 1926, this film sees magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrive in New York, with a briefcase full of fantastical and magical creatures. No sooner than he arrives, is his own business delayed, as he bumps into a No-Maj (which is basically the American term for muggle (non-magic person) called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and some of his magical creatures escape. This gains the unwanted attention of Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a worker at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). But more is going on in New York than a couple of escaped beasties, as a dark magic is lurking, threatening to upset the order of mankind and wizardkind alike.
Much like Duncan Jones’ Warcraft: The Beginning earlier this year, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a film that fans of this literary/film phenomenon will absolutely love. Rowling, in her screenwriting debut, does occasionally bamboozle you with jargon (some of which is delivered so rapidly you find yourself asking “what was that they just said?”) and the structure of this big screen tale does over-excitedly jump around untidily, with certain sub-plots being less expanded than others. However, one constant in this feature is the goodwill (even in the face some truly dark moments) and Rowling’s screenplay is happily imaginative, idealogical and thoroughly entertaining. Yes there is a lot of world building but it is a world you are happy to take the time to see grow and the references to Potter are pretty few in number, barring the odd name drop, meaning that this is an accessible step into Rowling’s enchanting creation.
Despite falling into the common prequel trend of filling the film to the brim with CGI (over practical) effects, and despite some bombastic moments in the latter half, this is an engaging and exciting start to this new series, which comes out swinging far better than the likes of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This is largely down to the feeling that Rowling and (established Potter director) David Yates know exactly where they are going with this, as tantalisingly hinted at with the climatic reveal of the series’ big baddie, which we won’t discuss any further to avoid spoilers. Not to mention the fact that the creatures themselves really are creative, character-instilled, and fantastic innovations that suggest there is plenty of wonders left for fans and newcomers alike to experience in this world. Then there is the political recoil of the narrative which is a timely caution on the dangers of segregation, the oppressive nature of certain propaganda, man’s destruction of wildlife and how a climate of fear - in this case spurred on by the devious deeds of one dangerous wizard with a lot of power - can lead to panic and thus, destruction.
However, as well as the politics and the fabulous creatures on display, a strong aspect of the film is also its characters, who on the most part are very charming. Redmayne is almost child-like as Scamander, whose love of the natural world and uneasiness around people sees him as a reclusive but compelling figure. The character brings with him a level of British eccentricity and - despite some whispered lines of dialogue being slightly unclear - Redmayne brings an innocence and appeal to the central figure, who strikes up a chemistry with the great supporting players. Katherine Waterston is brilliant and wholly believable as Tina and her character really develops over the course of the film, coming to see past the fear of her magical realm and see the bigger picture. While Dan Fogler, as hard working New Yorker Jacob (who dreams of having his own bakery) is an absolute scene stealer at times and genuinely funny. There is also some foreboding support from Colin Farrell as mysterious MACUSA Auror (a highly trained officer to us muggles) Percival Graves. While Ezra Miller gives a damaged and very dark performance as the troubled and abused young man Credence, who’s character (and sub-plot) comes to get a bit muddled but Miller really delivers a strong turn in one of the darkest areas of the film.
Filled with wonder, a giddy eagerness for the future and a plethora of talented actors (from Ron Perlman as greedy Goblin Gnarlack to Alison Sudol as Queenie (Tina’s lovable sister), this is a film that really lays the groundwork for what hopes to be a promising new avenue in this universe. True the excitable tendencies of the writing at times and the more hectic areas of plotting does not always ensure a smooth ride but it is an intriguing start that introduces promising characters (and a propitious future villain) and plants the seeds for some areas of interest to come as Newt and his briefcase of magnificent magical wildlife is sure to come calling at the cinema again soon, and we look forward to seeing where he heads next.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: DAVID YATES / SCREENPLAY: J.K. ROWLING / STARRING: EDDIE REDMAYNE, KATHERINE WATERSTON, DAN FOGLER, ALISON SUDOL, COLIN FARRELL, EZRA MILLER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW