Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - JK Rowling’s tale is a magical delight

The beasts are here, the Potter lore is here, but what sets this apart is its fantastic visuals, well-drawn characters and brilliant performances

Film Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell

Genre: Fantasy

Running Time: 133 min

Fri, Nov 18, 2016, 09:33

   

Spin-off Season begins with the latest attention-hungry satellite of the Planet Potter. Like that upcoming Star Wars thing, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has kicked up a few suspicions involving deceased horses and their unnecessary pummelling.

Stand down the cynicism. It gives us pleasure to relate that – for the casual devotee anyway – David Yates’s film proves to be more coherent and emotionally grounded than any of the Harry Potter episodes.

The key word in that last sentence is “film”. This frantic prequel is inspired by a faux-text book that JK Rowling wrote for Comic Relief in 2001. There is no source plot to which the film-makers must remain slavishly faithful. Debut screenwriter Rowling need not fear novelist Rowling’s judgemental glance at each minuscule trim, and the film gets to breathe its own, fresh cinematic air. (I still wake up snoring at memories of those excruciating camping scenes in Deadly Boring Part I.)

With apologies to the former Potter juveniles, Fantastic Beasts also profits from the presence of excellent lead actors. The 1920s art direction is to die for. The flick deserves the fortunes it cannot fail to accumulate.

Eddie Redmayne is terrific as English explorer Newt Scamander, supposed author of the source text. The picture begins with him disembarking on Ellis Island clutching a magical suitcase whose clasps cannot contain prying claws within. Rowling’s appetite for over-complicated magical lore and bureaucracy remains undiminished. So, some furrowing of brow is required while the film explains its universe.

In the spirit of Men in Black, this version of New York maintains a tension between humdrum humanity and an underground super-class. The everyday No-Maj (an Americanism for “muggle”) community lives blissfully unaware that wizards walk among them. There’s more stuff about ministries and agencies that you can take or leave as you choose.

Shortly after his arrival, Newt rubs up against Jacob Kowalski (the charming Dan Fogler), a Non-Maj factory worker who dreams of becoming a baker, and the two men accidentally exchange suitcases. This matters quite a bit. Jacob’s carries various sample fancies. Newt’s portable Tardis opens onto an expanse containing the outlandish beasts he has gathered on his travels.

Their lives intertwine with two magical sisters: the sad, clever Tina (Katherine Waterston) and the perky telepathic Queenie (Alison Sudol). Elsewhere, some sinister force is chewing up bits of Manhattan.

The story breaks no screenwriting templates. We meander about the city for two hours before ending up in the sort of destructive conflagration that ends most superhero movies. Crucially, Rowling and David Yates, director of all the latter Potter movies, then manage a late-game save with an unexpectedly emotional epilogue that leaves us yearning for more.

The delicious recreations of jazz-era New York will win much-deserved praise and all the relevant Oscar nominations. Shot in restrained greys by Philippe Rousselot, the picture allows steam-punk activity into every busy corner of the frame. No film has had as much fun with 3D – beasts appearing to burst above and below the frame – since Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi. Newt’s creatures balance repellence with charm in equal measure.

What really sets Fantastic Beasts ahead of Potter, however, are the surely drawn and beautifully acted characters at its core. Waterston and Sudol play creatively with two screwball types: the former more Jean Arthur, the latter more Jean Harlow. Dan Fogler charms as a classic klutz.

Eddie Redmayne looks to have worked as hard at creating his bumbling English naturalist as he toiled in the creation of Stephen Hawking. His eyes rarely settling on his co-conversationalist, an uncertain smirk never far from his lips, Eddie gives us an accidental dreamboat who, not too long ago, may have been an awkward Smike. We’ll learn more about his past as the episodes progress. Against the odds, the revelations will probably be worth heeding.