Based on a text book taught to the young wizards at Hogwarts, this new chapter in the Potter-verse puts Eddie Redmayne’s bumbling, gentleman magizoologist Newt Scamander at the heart of the story.
Although it’s a prequel set in 1926, it’s certainly a J K Rowling vision, instantly recognisable as part of what they officially call her “wizarding world”, but you feel this owes just as much to the re-assembled production team behind the Harry Potter franchise, including producer David Heyman, director David Yates and the outstanding production designer Stuart Craig.
And herein lies both the enterprise’s triumph and its pitfalls. It looks a billion dollars, most of which it will surely make back over the promised run of four more Scamander films. The 1920s New York set, built at Potter HQ in Leavesden studios, north of London, has all the grandure and detail of The Godfather II, Once Upon A Time in America or Gangs of New York.
Much is made of reconstructed Lower East Side tenement blocks, art deco signage, giant buildings such as the Woolworth and early subway stations. such as City Hall.
Into this world, and by ocean liner, arrives Newt with his shabby trunk case, standing in line at Ellis Island like he’s just left Oxford and can’t quite believe are no porters – or house elves – about. The classic brown luggage is, of course, key to the whole film. It’s like Dr Who’s tardis, a portal to an entire realm and as a screen gimmick, it works wonderfully, a literal bag of tricks that can usher in any plot line or adventure whenever needed.
It’s where Newt keeps his eponymous beasts, some of who like to escape and scrabble their way out every now and them, particularly the rather cute Niffler, a sort of mole-meets-platypus thing that likes shiny objects which he stuffs into a bottomless fur pouch.
Newt spends a lot of the movie trying to get the Niffler back into the briefcase, particularly when he mixes the trunk up with that of a poor baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who is looking for a bank loan.
Kowalski is the archetypal No-Maj – American term for “muggle”, i.e. literally one who has no magic – and it is through his ever-widening (and believing) eyes that we witness the mayhem and high jinx. While Newt dashes around New York trying to round up his escaped beasts (get used to them as they’ll be in-demand merchandise soon: the rhino-hippo Erumpent, the twig-like Bowtruckle, the Occamy, Graphorns, bitey Murtlaps, Billywigs, and something called Swooping Evil) and Redmayne’s major success is in acting so adeptly with these imaginary special effect creations like they’re his real pets.
But their presence on the loose in the city naturally risks exposing the wizard world to that of the No-Majs and that’s why Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) get involved, escorting Newt to the world of MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America), where tensions are already simmering, threatened by the presence of a “dark wind” blowing in from Europe, as well as the suspicions and street protests of the Second Salemers, a quasi-religious, anti-magic faction led by Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barebone and her fervent family of adoptees (among whom Ezra Miller’s Credence is the stand-out turn).
While this does add a layer of allegory, a suspicion of “aliens” that particularly resonates in this most tumultuous of political times. basically it also means there’s a heck of a lot going on here. Like Newt’s leather case, it’s rather overstuffed. While Redmayne’s wizard corals his creatures, we barely have time to get to know Waterston’s Tina, who remains frustratingly blank, and while Fogler gets a few laughs with good timing, he often overdoes the gurning.
I haven’t even mentioned Jon Voight’s press baron Henry Shaw, and his two sons, one a devoted newspaper man (Ronan Rafferty), the other a corrupt politician (Josh Cowdrey), nor Carmen Ejiogo and Colin Farrell who run MACUSA.
Whilst many of the individual episodes are exciting and visually inventive in themselves, there’s an overall lack of cohesion, which might be understandable given this is Rowling’s first screenplay, a skill requiring far more economy than her large novels ever exercised. But what are the titular beasts for? They serve no dramatic function. And where is any child’s-eye view? With all due respect to fans, this is still a kids’ film but it seems to me there’s no-one for them to root for or hook onto. Mind you, there isn’t in Dr Who and they loved that, and that’s probably the template.
What really disappoints is that where Harry Potter and his films felt entirely original, there’s a “franchise-y” feel to Fantastic Beasts. It has the now-predictable rhythms of a Marvel origins movie – New York again gets destroyed in a climactic barrage of special effects; the Blind Pig speakeasy even seems modelled on the Star Wars cantina – and less of the eccentric, innocent, English charms of Harry and his little chums and their battles.
“I tend to annoy people,” says Newt Scamander with good, old British honesty. It gets a laugh, sure, but it’s not really a trait up with which one wishes to put for four more films. For all the ruffled, public-school appeal of Redmayne and the physicality of the performance, he remains a solitary figure, forever in search of a smile or human connection.
Something more is needed, a bit more wit, perhaps, or dare I say it, some sexual tension – with the humans, not the beasts, of course. And we’re not dealing with children anymore, after all.. But how one misses the cast of Hogwarts teachers and the camaraderie and rivalry between the pupils.
Indeed, you have to wait until one of the final reveals for one of film’s biggest surprises. I know some reviewers have already let this particular cat out of the bag – or the suitcase, I suppose – but I shan’t spoil it, save to say that a major star is involved and he could be good, or he could be awful.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has all the makings of a huge family blockbuster, but all the bloated traps of those, too. It hasn’t quite got the balance right, but, like the title hints, surely knows where to find the magic over the ensuing movies. I’d check down that cheeky Niffler’s pouch, for starters.