Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller
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10 years ago, comparing a film to Star Wars would have sounded like an insult. After The Force Awakens, though, it’s another matter entirely. And, as if by magic, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has arrived to revelio the Harry Potter franchise as Star Wars’ natural successor.
Star Wars, of course, doesn’t need a successor, but how wonderful to have two fantastical universes to get lost in – universes that still prove full of new surprises as well as age-old charm.
The charm here comes in large parts from Eddie Redmayne, who plays Newt Scamander, a wizard with a penchant for collecting and protecting magical beasts. Arriving in 1920s New York with a suitcase full of them, it’s only a matter of minutes until one breaks loose – a Niffler – and starts raiding the nearest bank.
The ensuing calamity sees him collide with normal male man Jacob (Dan Fogler) and would-be magical forces agent Tina (Katherine Waterston). Add in a sinister colleague of hers (Colin Farrell, recalling his brilliantly menacing turn in the remake of Fright Night), a misunderstood child (Ezra Miller) and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and you have an eclectic little ensemble. And, as with her school-set earlier outings, one thing JK Rowling is good at is group adventures. Watching them interact is magic in itself.
Redmayne proves infectiously likeable in the lead, as comfortable with his CGI companions as he is awkward with the humans around him – one sequence involving a mating ritual is laugh-out-loud funny and proves just how game the actor is to play the fool – but it’s credit to Dan Fogler that the best character is actually Jacob, who lends the whole story a familiar air of wonder and a surprising, endearing streak of romance. “I don’t think I’m dreaming,” he exclaims at one point. “I ain’t got the brains to make this up.”
Rowling, though, does. What’s most impressive is that all these people genuinely fit into Harry Potter’s world. The period America setting, riven with Salem-inspired suspicion, gives everything and everyone a distinct identity from the Hogwarts saga – half the fun is hearing composer James Newton Howard introduce some jazz to proceedings – but director David Yates, who brought the Potter movies into their own, dark maturity, retains the feel, look and history of Rowling’s work.
The screenplay is occasionally clunky, especially when the plot unashamedly crashes to a halt for 10 minutes just to admire some monsters. But that’s exactly what you want from a film called Fantastic Beasts – and they easily live up to the title, with each cute critter bursting with ideas and, more importantly, compassion. (The message of love countering a cruel blonde man’s philosophy of hatred and division is a welcome one in 2017.)
Compassion has always been at the core of Potter. And what’s heartwarming throughout Fantastic Beasts is just how much Rowling cares about her own mythology; from the brief appearance of Grindelwald to the American word for “muggle” being “No-Maj”, you wouldn’t be surprised if the author had this all planned ever since her first book. You can trace Potter’s routes back to Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and, especially here, Terry Gilliam, but that kind of vision, not to mention the John Williams-esque music, is what makes its creator the heir apparent to a young George Lucas: she’s able to whizz us through the sandbox she’s built with the same exhilarating sense of discovery, and with a consistent sense of identity and logic. Between this and the (excellent) play the Cursed Child, the scale and potential of Harry Potter suddenly becomes jaw-droppingly apparent. There are four more Fantastic Beasts films in the pipeline, and, unlike the Star Wars prequels, it’s hard to imagine any of them cheapening the Potter legacy. What you can imagine, though, is rushing out to see each one as soon as possible.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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