Review: 'Fantastic Beasts' is visual magic, but clumsily develops its dark side

Eddie Redmayne reveals himself to be the Potterverse's MVP in the new franchise-launching adventure

Review: 'Fantastic Beasts' is visual magic, but clumsily develops its dark side

[Warner Bros]

“I don’t think I’m dreaming,” says Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski about halfway through Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, the new franchise-launching prequel spinning-off from the Harry Potter series. Kowalski, a factory worker and WWI veteran with dreams of opening a bakery in his native New York, is a ‘No-Maj’, which is American wizarding vernacular for muggle or non-magical person, rather than someone who hates Madonna. “I ain’t got the brains to make this up,” Kowalski says, having seen wizards and witches wave their wands and do the impossible, all while becoming an unwilling and unlikely assistant to Newt Scamander, Hogwarts wash-out and magizoologist, yet another fully-rounded figure to pop out of the brains of JK Rowling.

The writer, having cast her spell on children’s books, middle-England malaise, private detectives, and turning her Twitter account into a scathing attack on conservatism, here does some more magic. With David Yates, the director who steered the second half of the Harry Potter movie saga to a satisfying end for millions of unforgiving fans, the pair takes what was just a 59-page glossary of otherworldly and fiendish fauna published in aid of Comic Relief in 2001 and will now expand it into a five-film franchise, meaning you’re likely to have John Williams’ musical leitmotif – the familiar Hedwig’s Theme – which will introduce each of the films stuck in your head till about 2035. At which point a film version of The Cursed Child can be expected.

Fantastic Beasts deserves a lot of credit for its inventiveness, successfully managing to tread the delicate line between servicing the familiar beats of the eight-movie franchise that’s gone before it while creating enough new material to launch a new adventure. The story revolves around Eddie Redmayne’s charmingly observed performance as Scamander, freshly arrived in New York with a bottomless suitcase filled with a magical menagerie. A dodgy lock leads to the titular beasts running amok across New York City, with Scamander attracting the attention of Tina Goldstein, herself a washed-out auror and now quill-pushing ‘Statute of Secrecy’ enforcer with MACUSA, the stateside iteration of the Ministry of Magic. We know Tina is serious because she doesn’t smile and wears trousers, while her telepathic sister Queenie, pitched somewhere between Betty Boop and Marilyn Monroe, first turns up in lingerie.

[Warner Bros]

Pulling in Kowalski to ask all the expository questions for everyone in the audience who’s not yet encountered Rowling’s world, the four embark on a series of madcap set-pieces, trying to recapture Scamander’s scheming beasts before the people of New York notice. And notice they have, what with MACUSA’s top investigator Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) on the trail of a dark spectre that’s blowing up Brownstones without a care in the world for gentrification, while Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou, a muggle leading the struggle to alert everyone to the dangers of witches hidden in their presence.

It’s here where Fantastic Beasts begins to misstep, overfilling its debut feature with an attempt to forge a new Voldemort-level threat. Much of the joy of the film, best captured in an eye-popping sequence that sees Scamander tending to his assorted beasts in his suitcase, is Rowling at her best. The creatures, beautifully designed (albeit heavy on the CGI), are unique and full of individual character, from the platypusary Niffler, with its magpie-like affinity for the shiny, to the Bowtruckle, a lock-picking tree branch set to take Groot in your heart. Redmayne, like everyone in the cast (it’s nice not to be bound to child actors for once), sparkles as the animal lover, affecting a David Attenborough all-knowing and all-admiring naturalism, looking on and whimsically loving every moment of havoc they unleash. As the new Harry, Redmayne brings the kind of intensity he did to Jupiter Ascending, but this time perfectly understands how to rein it in, showcasing that he is essentially a character actor with model looks.

But the franchise cannot sustain itself on this alone, instead diverting focus to the troubled world of American wizards, a dark place where everyone is constantly terrified of being caught by the No-Maj community. In contrast to the lighter side, the film’s heavy-handed grim and dark scenes, setting up the big bad for the next four films, seems cobbled together in an afterthought, presenting another glimpse into totalitarianism that really doesn’t seem to be fleshed out beyond the realms of some wizards are bad because Slytherin or whatever its American cousin is. Better established characters get swept aside to introduce greater and greater threats, letting too many plot holes unfilled, and ending in a finale that's as damp a squib as Rowling has ever produced.

That said, the visual panache of the Potterverse is unparalleled and the performances strike the right tone, with the principal four creating a team to root for. There’s more than enough of this world left to discover in the decade to come.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆ While the film struggles to shoehorn in a baddy for the series to come, Redmayne’s charming turn and the inventiveness of its creatures lets Fantastic Beasts unleash a new billion-dollar spell on the cinematic world

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them  (12A/133mins) is released worldwide on November 18th

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