It’s been almost five-and-a-half years since the eight-film Harry Potter franchise handed in its wand. So the sight of the Warner Bros logo cloaked in familiar blue-grey light while a sampling of John Williams’ iconic score induces tingles with its tinkles is, well, magical.
As Potter-heads already know, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first of a planned five-film prequel series, with this instalment set in 1926 New York – a bewitching locale that looks like the widescreen cityscapes of Once Upon a Time in America have been sprinkled in fairy dust. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, overdoing the nervous tics), the author of the titular textbook that Harry studies in first movie The Philosopher’s Stone, arrives in New York on the home leg of a global excursion dedicated to cataloguing exotic creatures.
Such beasts are banned in New York, where the magical community is presently keeping a low profile, and for good reason: dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has disappeared after wreaking havoc in Europe; a mysterious force is attacking New York; and No-Maj (American-English for Muggle) bigotry is being zealously stoked by the fanatical Second Salemers, led by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).
Unfortunately for Newt, some funny business involving likeable Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, pretty much stealing the movie) and a suitcase switcheroo leads to some of Newt’s creatures springing the clasps on their Tardis-like home and hightailing it into a city already on red alert.
This great escape draws the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former ‘Auror’ (Dark-wizard catcher) who is now out of favour at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), and she in turn reports it to Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to curry favour.
What follows is a succession of chases, slapstick set-pieces and reveals, be it the shapes and sizes of the various beasts on show or plot turns instigated by characters’ hidden motives and desires – many a heart here turns out to be a chamber of secrets.
A couple of the curtain-pulls are predictable, and the creatures, certainly, frequently disappointment, sounding better on paper – an eagle-dragon! Bird-snakes! A tiger with a neck like a blowfish! – than they look in pixels. Only a mischievous penguin-hedgehog and Newt’s best-bud Pickett, who might be Baby Groot’s cousin, prove truly spellbinding. But there’s nothing here to quite saucer the eyes like giant spider Aragog or Buckbeak the Hippogriff in the Potter movies.
Still, what Fantastic Beasts lacks in wonderment it almost makes up for in scares and subtext. Scripted by J.K. Rowling herself and directed by David Yates, the man behind the later, darker Potters, this is squarely aimed at the kids who grew up reading and watching Harry Potter – which is to say, adults.
Duly freighted with ideas and images to make the Dementors seem chirpy, its potent themes include prejudice, intolerance and repression, presented here with enough force to hit viewers straight between the eyes and leave a (zigzag) scar in these dark days of Brexit and Trump.
The Second Salemers, meanwhile, are as unnerving as anything you’ll find in cult movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Sacrament. Come the closing credits, it’s Mary Lou’s burning eyes and the cowering, whipped body of her tormented acolyte, Credence (We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller), that are the takeaways, not a destruction-porn finale that comes with even fewer consequences than Man of Steel’s skyscraper-slamming denouement.
Overall, what has emerged from Rowling’s sorting hat of ideas isn’t quite as fantastic as we all hoped. But it is an exceedingly solid franchise-opener that builds a new world with enough bridges to the established Potterverse to keep the devoted happy.
The second instalment, we’re promised, will travel to the UK and Paris, with Grindelwald coming to the fore and a young Dumbledore (Newt’s only ally when he was expelled from Hogwarts) stepping into play. We can also expect, at some point, to visit America’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Ilvermorny, while the spectre of World War 2 looms large.
And to think, people initially pondered how Harry’s slim textbook, which Rowling actually published in 2001 under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, could be stretched into one feature, let alone five. Turns out it’s like Newt’s suitcase – bewitched with an Extension Charm, and promising extraordinary sights. This first instalment showcases just enough of them to make you sign up for the full expedition.