The first in a five-movie franchise based on an in-joke textbook in Harry Potter’s education curriculum starring Oscar actor du jour Eddie Redmayne and authored by first-time scripter J. K. Rowling, the Queen of Magic Fiction herself. What could possibly go wrong?
Not much if the truth be told because this supernatural adventure extravaganza not only opens up a whole innovative universe of dark cinematic surprise but also exciting new territory for Potterphiles as the wizarding world moves from sedate rural England to the helter skelter jazz age of prohibition era New York.
It’s 1926, and expelled from Hogwarts for endangering humanity with one of the 85 creatures featured in his encyclopedia, magizoologist Newt Scamander (ideally cast Redmayne in superbly eccentric form) arrives in Manhattan with his bottomless Mary Poppins-style suitcase of animals drawn from eclectic mythologies and Rowling’s powerful imagination. Within hours, thanks to a luggage mixup, some of the beasts collected on his global travels have escaped causing epic mayhem in the Brazil meets Gotham City Big Apple already at paranormal breaking point due to escalating tension between the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) and the creepy Second Salemers, a No-Maj (Muggle) assembly, wanting to rid the city of warlocks and witches once and for all.
This event only adds fuel to the latter organisation and newspaper magnate Henry Shaw’s (a wasted Jon Voight) arguments in the divided city where economic inequality is high and wizards have been forced into hiding by an intolerant government, xenophobia, authoritarianism, persecution and oppression. Rowling must have had her crystal ball working overtime – the parallels with current American affairs become quite startling.
Anyway, it’s up to Scamander, helped by new friends bumbling wannabe pastry chef Jacob Kowalski (congenial Dan Fogler), and witch sisters Tina (practically perfect Katherine Waterston) and mind-reader Queenie (affecting Alison Sudol) Goldstein to try and recapture the errant menagerie before the powers-that-be clamp down on wizardry completely.
Will this fancy foursome become as pop culture entrenched as Harry, Ron and Hermione? Only box-office receipts will tell.
Further complicating the hit and myth story is power-crazed MACUSA head Percival Graves (dastardly Colin Farrell), convinced Scamander is part of a conspiracy involving the evil war-monger Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, the main villain of future instalments), and the mysterious Credence (striking Ezra Miller) the adopted and abused ‘son’ of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the Second Salemers’ puritanical leader.
There’s a lot going on in director David Yates’ splendidly rendered escapist prequel romp through marginal Potter folklore. Skilled Potterverse veteran Yates was responsible for the darker movies in the original series and is the perfect fit here to create a firm foundation and greater scope for the franchise and accent Rowling’s grim socio-political underpinnings without ever defusing the fantasy wonderment. It’s Rowling’s exemplary story-telling techniques that continue to amaze and transfix and many will respond to her latest densely packed fantasy landscape with the fervour they originally embraced her boy wizard and his friends.
Obviously the main stars of the show are the dizzying collection of beasts ranging from the Demiguise, from whose silky hair Invisibility Cloaks are spun, and the storm-inducing Thunderbird to the shape-shifting dragon bird Occamy and the cute Niffler, a mole-like kleptomaniac, which gets the best laughs. All spring to stunning CGI life laced with theme park thrills, exuberant wit and enchanting invention.
The finest sequence, completely opening up the spectacular possibilities of the series, is the moment our mystical David Attenborough drags Jacob into the TARDIS–like interior of his battered suitcase to marvel at the wild enclosures housing his pack of exotic pets.
Elsewhere it’s the imaginative finessing that adds waves of texture to the tale from wand-shining house elfs and magically translucent umbrellas to Sorceror’s Apprentice office cleaning and great fantastical bake-offs. I hate to say that this long, monsterific marathon of pure joy is spellbinding but it is precisely that – and a fun, ferocious and fabulous primer for prospective Fantastic Beasts exploits. Personally I can’t wait.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is released in UK cinemas on 18th November