Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them - is it worth the hype?
Fantastic Beasts is a tale – should that be tail? – that has grown in the telling. JK Rowling published her short “field guide” to the denizens of the Potterverse in 2001 when boy wizard mania was at its peak.
That modest tome now serves as springboard for a new series of adventures set once again in the realm of humble heroes, scheming sorcerers and misunderstood monsters, with befuddled Eddie Redmayne inheriting the Daniel Radcliffe role of inexperienced conjurer dangerously out of his depth.
Rowling has been accused of flogging a dead muggle lately. Fantastic Beasts arrives on the broomstick trail of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play that has set the West End alight (tickets can be acquired only via arcane rituals and possession of a magic bottomless wallet). Yet the first in a mooted five-part sequence is far from the pedestrian cash-in that it might have been.
The setting is 1920s New York rather than a romanticised contemporary Britain of the Potter saga and this shift brings its own distinctive charm. Strange doings are afoot in Gotham, with the arrival to Ellis Island of magical zoologist Newton Scamander (Redmayne) coinciding with a violent disturbance in the mystical ether. Causing a ruckus in the background, meanwhile, are anti-magic activists the “New Salemists”, fundamentalists who believe the only good wizard is a waterboarded wizard.
There are a lot of cogs and levers here and Fantastic Beasts initially struggles to click the pieces into place. How, for instance, does the flustered Newt’s eco-warrior quest to set free a rare animal relate to the nefarious dealings between Colin Farrell’s director of magical enforcement Percival Graves and snivelling New Salemist cultist Credence (Ezra Miller)?
But the movie is so dazzling that these early meanderings are easily glossed over. Even today, there’s something otherworldly about old New York, land of art deco skyscrapers and baroque apartment lobbies and the film trades extravagantly on this sensibility. Director David Yates (a Potter veteran, having overseen four of the original adaptations) gives us a Manhattan somewhere between Tim Burton’s Batman, HP Lovecraft and Miracle on 34th Street. Thus The Magical Congress of the USA is cloistered in a gorgeously gloomy Woolworth Building and a fairy tale Central Park Zoo anchors a key scene in which a lovesick magical rhinoceros goes on the rampage.
Harry Potter agnostics have always struggled with the tweeness of the books and the movies. Fantastic Beasts dials down the self satisfaction, even if it is occasionally a bit pushy in insisting we bask in the wondrous menagerie of creatures Newt hefts around in his Tardis-like suitcase. Considerably more fantastic than the monsters, though, are the performances.
Colin Farrell delivers a winningly mercurial turn as the ambiguous Graves and Katherine Waterston is perfect in the His Girl Friday role of Newt’s side-kick Tina Goldstein. Plus there’s a cackling cameo from Johnny Depp as villainous Gellert Grindelwald while chubby muggle (“no-maj” in American parlance) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) serves an endearing stand-in for the audience. Indeed the weakest link is arguably Redmayne who mistakes quirky mumbling for adorability and occupies a befuddled void at the centre of the film.
Yet as the storyline coheres, his flamboyant bumblings recede and you are soon carried aloft by the thrill of a very peculiar chase. It is at this point, too, that the film’s political subtexts become impossible to ignore. The head of the Magical Congress is referred to throughout as “Madam President”; one of the villains of the piece is a buccaneering businessman with slicked-back hair and a crass manner. As pre-Christmas escapism Fantastic Beasts is a first rate romp. In light of recent bombshells it also, however, doubles as unintentional political commentary. Oh to live in a world where unhappy tidings could be dispelled with a swish of a sorcerer’s wand.