Dark Magic And Other Animals
Eddie Redmayne heads up a superb cast in this funny but often dark tale set in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, which despite some problems remains compelling due to its charming new characters.
12A, 133 mins
2016 has been the year of cinematic recycling, when, to name just a few, The Magnificent Seven and Ben-Hur were dragged out of dusty storage to be remade, and Independence Day was given a pointless sequel. Adding to that potent brew, we now have Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, author J.K. Rowling’s first foray into the Harry Potter universe since that series ended.
Inspired by the 128-page book of the same name, written by Rowling for Comic Relief in 2001, Fantastic Beasts is set 70 years before the events of Potter. To set the scene, it’s 1926, and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived in New York with a case full of magical creatures, some of whom then escape and cause mayhem. But do not be deceived – this isn’t just an extended version of fantasy zoo-quest, as Rowling has carefully ensured that events in this new story are relevant to modern times.
All this jolly creature-hunting comes at a tumultuous time for the wizarding world, with non-magic people or Muggles (known as No-Maj in the US) being exhorted to shun those with magic, and with a darker threat on the loose abroad. Both of these things are making MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) rather jumpy. Witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and No-Maj baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) are dragged into matters by association with Newt, and thankfully help to bring some levity to proceedings.
But despite this, and the abundance of cute animals and fun chase scenes, this does at times feel like a ‘message film’. Shifting from attempts to recapture magical creatures to the nefarious agenda of a witch-hunter who wants to eradicate wizardkind does result in a somewhat muddled tone. For the first film in a series, this feels immediately darker and more psychological than early Potter, and to this reviewer’s mind is not so family-friendly as the first few tales of the boy wizard with the scar.
It’s a blessing, then, that there are frequent moments of humour in Fantastic Beasts, both human and animal-related. The magical world is, as ever, fully brought to life, in a great level of detail and with some very inventive touches. There is definitely a great deal here for Potter fans to enjoy, as well as some rather obvious ground-laying for future films, and also a neat little twist. The film’s tone, which jumps incongruously between lighthearted and serious, causes the biggest problem, but over the runtime the two sides, seemingly at cross-purposes, do come together.
That said, this is Rowling’s first screenplay, and so teething problems can be excused. The tone is slightly off, and some parts feel rushed, but say what you like about her, she has always been very good at writing characters, and this is still very much the case here. With Newt’s quirks, Tina’s nervy courage, Queenie’s brash, no-nonsense attitude, and Jacob’s gift for being utterly hilarious, there are certainly the makings of a great group here.
The performances certainly help, with Waterston in particular making a wonderful first impression as the awkward yet sensitive Tina. Fogler’s comic timing proves immaculate, but some of the other supporting actors are also brilliant. Samantha Morton is effortlessly chilling as witch-hunter Mary Lou, whilst Colin Farrell brings heft to his role as MACUSA agent Percival Graves, but Ezra Miller gives a stand-out turn as Mary Lou’s adopted son Credence. Leading man Redmayne is dependably charming as ever, but good though he is, it often seems as though he’s just playing a variation on himself.
However, based on this evidence, if the mooted 5-film series does happen, then Fantastic Beasts is certainly a promising start. In any case, it has already cast some sort of spell, because this is a beguiling world that I’m looking forward to returning to. So, although this film flits too much between dark magic and animal magic to know what it truly is, it remains an enjoyable adventure, mostly because of the characters who populate this world. I may be disappointed to give this only 3 ½ stars, but in the long run I have faith in Rowling, who rarely lets her audience down. If this series can work out just what kind of beast it wants to be before the next adventure, then all will be well.