With dazzling effects and wondrous new characters, J.K. Rowling's world of witchcraft and wizardry is back with a 1920s steampunk feel.
It doesn’t take long to rediscover that Harry Potter feeling. The opening titles, in fact. From the moment that iconic font type materialises out of the darkness and James Newton-Howard’s magical score tickles your ears, the world of wizards and witchcraft rushes right back up and bundles you up like an embrace from a long-lost friend.
Just like the seven preceding films, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is based on a book, only - this one’s a textbook - a book within a book, so to speak, for 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them' is the title of the text studied by the students of Hogwarts. And that, right there, is at once the genius and courage of J.K. Rowling; instead of merely rolling out ‘the next Harry Potter’, she’s taken a minor minor tidbit from one of her novels and built an entirely new world around it, complete with all new characters and creatures. Beyond the opportunities (and challenges) that provides, it also makes for an excellent entry point into the franchise for anyone who felt they came to the last one too late to get involved. It's a fresh start, to put it simply, for magicians and muggles alike.
Or a ‘non-maj' (non magic), rather, if you’re in 1920s America, which is when and where this story is set. British Magician and ‘beast conservationist’ Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived in New York City bearing a tardis-like briefcase whose size belies its remarkable internal capacity. Magic in America is far more heavily regulated, however, and the unlawful importation of wild beasts is a serious offence (just ask Johnny Depp), meaning Scamander is promptly picked up by Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) of the Magical Law Enforcement branch within MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America). A mix-up of identical briefcases with a delightful wannabe pastry chef (Dan Fogler) allows several of Scamander’s magical beasts to escape, and much of the film’s story revolves around the duo's attempts to covertly recapture them. Danger lurks nearby, however, with Salem supporters calling for another witch hunt, and a mysterious invisible force wreaking havoc in the streets of Manhattan.
Rowling has never been one to shy away from darker subjects or contemporary issues, and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is no exception. Marriage equality, prejudice, the death penalty and animal cruelty all garner attention in this film, as do a series of legitimately unnerving murders that may prove a little too trying for younger audiences. There’s a lot of world building to be done, understandably, and while it’s mostly handled with a deft touch, the film occasionally lags during Scamander’s calamitous beast wrangling sequences. On the performance front, Redmayne is positively delightful in the lead, bringing his shy and awkward 'magician-next-door’ demeanour to the character with full force. Waterston, Fogler and Farrell all do a terrific job in support, as does Samantha Morton as a terrifying orphanage matron cum witch hunter.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them marks the accomplished and welcomed beginning of what promises to be a beguiling new franchise from Rowling. It lacks some of the richness and detail of her Hogwarts universe, but that’s only natural for an original screenplay not founded in a pre-existing novel. Doubtless the beloved author already has an intricate path mapped out for her new characters, and we await them with marked anticipation.