Thursday, 17 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

(M) ★★★

Director: David Yates.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo.

"Gotta catch 'em all!" said Newt Scamander (probably).

THERE must be a saying in Hollywood to the effect of “No franchise is ever finished”.

Warner Bros, having made close to $8 billion at the box office from the eight Harry Potter films, had this adage in mind when it came knocking on JK Rowling’s door looking for another excuse to return to the Potterverse.

Because $8 billion is never enough, Warner Bros suggested Rowling turn her spin-off textbook about magical animals (originally released as a Comic Relief charity fundraiser) into a new film, to which Rowling agreed (and it’s now rumoured to be the first film in a five film series).

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is set 70 years before Potter’s adventures, and follows magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne) as he arrives in New York with a suitcase overflowing with enchanted creatures.

A couple of these mystical animals escape, which puts Scamander in the sights of MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) and in particular a recently demoted witch named Porpentina Goldstein (Waterston).

But MACUSA has bigger problems – a dark force is terrorising New York and rumours abound that the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose.

The Potterverse is a marvellous cinematic universe to return to and the franchise is in good hands with Rowling on script duties and Yates, a veteran of the final four Potter films, back in the director’s chair. They’ve acquired a solid cast, led by the Oscar-winning Redmayne.

Comparisons are unavoidable and Fantastic Beasts falls down in that category. Its adventures feel twee in the shadow of the Voldermort vs Potter duel that spanned eight films and embroiled so many excellent characters in a run of increasingly impressive movies. But all things being equal, Fantastic Beasts is a stronger start than Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, which remains easily the runt of the Rowling litter.

On its own Fantastic Beasts is enjoyable, solid entertainment, but is sadly lacking in some key areas. It’s missing a focused villain, with much of the film spent without anything resembling a definite Big Bad, leaving the drama slightly directionless. Instead of having a key antagonist to channel the story, we get diverted by Scamander’s pursuits of his missing magical animals.

Unfortunately the fantastic beasts are the least fantastic part of the film. Lengthy tracts where Scamander and his non-maj (AKA muggle) companion Jacob Kowalski (a pleasantly amusing Fogler) hunt down the missing creatures or hang out with them in Scamander’s menagerie are the most pedestrian sections of the story because there are more interesting things going on in the subplots. When people are dying and dark forces are afoot, it’s hard to get excited about a man’s collection of stick insects, gryphons, and giant dung beetles.

These FX-heavy sequences are also disappointing visually, but outside the green-screen fakeness of Scamander’s zoo (and the CG blizzard of the big finale), the film looks great. The production design of the 1920s helps give the movie a style of its own, while still managing to have the appearance of a Potter film.

Where the movie really succeeds is in its casting. Redmayne is particularly good as the socially inept Scamander, giving him a neat mix of naivety and cleverness. Farrell is also top-notch as the dubious MACUSA director Percival Graves, Waterston makes Porpentina well-rounded and intriguing, while Fogler and Sudol bring some much-needed humour. Miller and Morton are disturbingly good as a couple of anti-magic protesters, and the bit players like Jon Voight and Ron Perlman add plenty of gravitas to small roles. There’s also a surprise cameo at the end for those of you who haven’t had it spoilt yet.

That cameo points to big, exciting things to come and, like the rest of the film, gives the impression that this is just a warm-up – a dip of the toe back into the pool to see if the Potter fans are keen for another swim.

Whatever may come next though, this is a satisfying-enough spin-off and a welcome return to the wizarding world.

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