It was always going to happen. A franchise that lucrative was never going to rest easy, and so somewhat inevitably (a mere five years after He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was vanquished) J.K Rowling invites us once more back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This prequel of sorts promises something fresh and exciting, set as it is in 1920s New York, but also remains tethered to the original saga. The opening sets up a magical world currently being terrorised by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald – a name no doubt familiar to those who paid attention to the Potter films.
Our new story follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard arriving in America with a suitcase full of magical creatures. One of them escapes, and Newt’s attempts to recapture it lead him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a local No-Maj (an American muggle). There is an unfortunate and rather predictable case swap, and poor Kowalski ends up with a bunch of magical creatures let loose in his apartment.
Meanwhile, Newt is finding New York to be a very politically charged place. There is high tension in the wizarding community, compounded by the enforced segregation from the No-Maj’s. The magical world is ruled by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) a highly regulated political body, a bit like the Ministry of Magic. Acronym fans prepare to be delighted further, as we also have the NSPS to contend with – the New Salem Philanthropic Society. A small group of fanatical witch haters.
When Newt is brought before MACUSA by disgraced auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) we learn that there is a beast loose in New York openly terrorising the No-Maj world, and threatening to expose the magical community. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) the Director of Magical Security is leading the investigation. Is Grindelwald linked to these attacks? Is Scamander? There’s a lot going on in these scenes, with lots of chewy mouthfuls of exposition, and lots of characters destined to be more important in future films.
So we have Newt, Tina, Kowalski, and Tina’s sister Queenie (the fabulous Alison Sudol) running around the city trying to capture magical creatures. Based on the title of the film you’d think this was the main plot, but the film is so determined to set up something bigger and more serious, this just becomes a subplot that slows the narrative down. Elsewhere there is a very dark story strand involving the New Salem folk, riffing on occult horror, and strongly hinting at child abuse and torture. Seriously dark stuff.
Redmayne, cashing in some of his Oscar chips for his first big franchise role certainly looks the part as the young magi-zoologist. Scamander is most definitely a triumph of costume design. The actor however is making some strange choices with his performance. Awkward and introverted to the extreme, he plays Scamander like Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis film, but somewhere on the autism spectrum. It’s an interesting choice – and one suspects it was his, rather than Rowling or director David Yates – but it does not make for a particularly engaging hero.
Visually the film looks good, but not as good as you would hope. Some of the CGI looks rushed, and Yates only scratches the surface of evoking the Jazz era New York of the 1920s. It feels as if he’s holding back by trying to keep Fantastic Beasts looking as if it belongs in the Potter universe. He’s still using that same “grey and ominous” colour palette from the final Potter films. This film should have been bright and exploding with colour. I was hoping for Gatsby with wizards, but instead got Rain Man with drizzle.
There is one lovely sequence however, where the secrets of Newt’s suitcase are revealed for the first time. It is the first moment in the film to have a real sense of magic about it, and remind you of that feeling you had seeing Diagon Alley for the first time. Unfortunately it is too rare a moment, in what is a very grown up film, dealing with dark and scary grown up themes.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton Director: David Yates Writer: J.K. Rowling Released By: Warner Bros Certificate: 12 Duration: 133 mins Release Date: 27th March 2017