A suitcase full of magical beasts, a city divided by fear and a young magizoologist exploring a new world – JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter spin-off movie has all the ingredients to satisfy the most devoted of Potterheads. Add in returning director David Yates and series producer David Heyman and the spell is cast.
It’s a success – thrilling, stunning, warm and witty. While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might not quite match the very best of the Hogwarts series, it’s a welcome return to an intricately drawn universe that bodes very well indeed for the next four Beasts instalments.
Eddie Redmayne is Newt Scamander, a shy and awkward animal lover who is visiting New York for the first time as part of a world tour researching the titular book that is to become a set text in Hogwarts many years later. It’s 1926 and New York is a city in turmoil as a destructive invisible force is causing extensive wreckage, blustering through roads and buildings like a tornado.
The No-Maj (American for Muggle) community is afraid and an extremist group led by Samantha Morton’s draconian matriarch has formed, calling for a ‘second Salem’ and an end to witchcraft. MACUSA (the US version of the Ministry of Magic) is under pressure, with witches and wizards prohibited from owning magical creatures and forced to keep their powers under wraps to protect the No-Majs. Radical magical movements are also springing up to defend their rights, making the city a melting pot of unease. And the wizarding world is in peril back in the UK as well, we learn through news-reel montage, as Gellert Grindelwald, dark wizard and precursor to Voldemort, has begun to rise.
Not helping things, Scamander accidentally unleashes a Niffler – a mole-like creature with insatiable magpie-ish tendencies to nick money and jewellery. Katherine Waterston is the MACUSA enforcement officer who arrests him, Alison Sudol her sexy Legilimens (mind reader) sister and Dan Fogler the No-Maj who get inadvertently caught up in the increasing mayhem.
JK Rowling’s screenplay deftly mixes child-friendly slapstick – more creatures escape, it’s a bit of a mess – with brewing politics that are hugely relevant. And unsurprisingly, it’s gorgeous to look at. MACUSA is a bureaucratic wonderland of self-typing typewriters, gigantic time pieces and origami mice, while the TARDIS-like inside of Newt’s briefcase holds continents’ worth of landscapes.
Redmayne himself rather channels The Doctor at points (Matt Smith’s Doctor, at least) as the gentle and benevolent eccentric desperate to protect and understand all species. Waterston and Sudol are very much his equal, protagonists in their own right who we’re convinced we’ll see again in later instalments, while Fogler threatens to steal the show.
Despite his slightly schlubby introduction, his is the Muggle’s-eye-view into this new world, always full of wonder but moral and sympathetic himself. He gets the funniest lines (our biggest laughs were in the gorgeous speakeasy scenes after a glass or two of giggle juice) and elicits the strongest heart tugs. On the dark side are Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller as a disgruntled senior Maj and a beaten down No-Maj respectively, creating empathy as they introduce a peril set to grow.
As a part of the Potter universe, it works wonderfully – though swapping school-term woes for grown-up problems might distance kids not fully initiated. Packed with Easter eggs and hints at what’s to come, Rowling’s first go as screenwriter shows what a talent she is, and only increases anticipation for where she’ll lead us next. From the opening music to the sweet final beat, it’s a joy to be back in Rowling’s world. Open the suitcase, we’re coming in.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is released in UK and US cinemas on November 18.
Director: David Yates; Screenplay: JK Rowling; Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell; Running time: 133 mins; Certificate: 12A