Around fifteen minutes into Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone we’d been introduced to our hero, we knew his backstory, had discovered that he’s a wizard thanks to a big, beardy half-giant from the West Country, and joined him in scratching the surface of the magical world he was on the verge of discovering. It takes twice as long for us to find out half as much about Newt Scamander, the lead in Harry Potter prequel/spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Fortunately, Eddie Redmayne who plays our new hero Newt is inherently likeable. He gives the character softness, tonnes of heart, and a sheepish sense of mischief. But still, I found it difficult to connect with him as immediately as I did with Daniel Radcliffe’s Potter. With Harry, his introduction to magic was ours as well, and we shared in his amazement of it all, whereas Newt, being a well-travelled magizoologist (a magical zoologist), is far more relaxed with everything, including New York itself where he ends up for this particular adventure. He has a quiet curiosity for his surroundings, but it doesn’t make for the same awe we felt when entering the world with Harry. Not to worry though, because thankfully he’s carrying a suitcase full of fantastical creatures, and it’s through his interactions with these creatures that we eventually learn about what makes him tick…but not before they cause a touch of havoc around The City That Never Sleeps.
Newt has arrived in the States at just the wrong time. There’s trouble brewing between the magical and the Muggles (or No-Maj’s as they’re called here…bleugh!). The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose, and a string of buildings have been destroyed by mysterious beings. The bad news for Newt is that the beasts he’s brought with him in his clunky old luggage are banned in the US, and one of them in particular, the scene (and money) stealing little Niffler, has designs on making an escape. Which naturally means that the case is going to end up in the wrong hands. Those hands belonging to the non-magical wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who unwittingly unleashes the contents of the suitcase upon the city, much to the annoyance of former Auror (think: wizarding law enforcement), Tina, who’s played by the delightful Katherine Waterston.
Whilst Newt, Kowalski, Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), run about trying to round up the troublemaking creatures in a series of oddly goofy segments, darker things are brewing over at the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted children, led by the desperately in need of a haircut Credence (Ezra Miller), are spreading the word of the evils of witchcraft and wizardry. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a shady big-shot Auror has reason to believe that Mary Lou is unknowingly harbouring a dangerously repressed witch or wizard of her very own, and is willing to manipulate poor Credence as means of finding their identity. Can you guess who it is?
It’s not always the subtlest storytelling from J. K. Rowling, who makes her first dive into screenwriting with Fantastic Beasts. Many of the twists and turns are foreshadowed, or just plain obvious, and one big reveal is plucked straight out of The Goblet of Fire.
New York, meanwhile, is an uncomfortable fit for the wizarding world in comparison to the England setting which has served the franchise so well up until now. Despite the impressive production design from series stalwart Stuart Craig, we lose some of the magic in taking the journey across the Atlantic. There’s plenty of visual marvels that catch the eye, but we whisk so quickly through the city that there’s not really enough time to take it all in before it’s inevitably smashed up. The extension in the scope of the universe is welcome, and there’s fun to be had with the differing customs of new wizarding communities, but a good chunk of the changes and additions to the known canon are only skin deep; again, No-Maj…bleugh!
But when it gets going – and it does – it sweeps by with the pace of the better of director David Yates’ Potter movies, The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, without ever coming too close to those films in terms of consistency. It swings from slapstickery to darkness, with the serious moments comfortably triumphing over the levity. It’s in the darker turns with Percival Graves and Credence that the meat of the story lies. Or, at least, these are the parts that seem as though they will have the most impact moving forward. And yet that thread runs largely separate to the lighthearted antics of Newt’s main adventure right up until the final act. It’s not until this point that I felt truly invested, but I did get there eventually. It’s then that the pieces fall into place, that the balance in the tone is struck, and we get a clearer view of where the series will take us.
And there’s enough to suggest that Newt Scamander and J. K. Rowling have a few more tricks hidden away in their magical suitcase yet.
Rating (out of 5):