Monday 11 December 2017

Film review: Land before Potter's time simply magic

JK Rowling's adventurous new fantasy is a cut above its predecessor

Other world: Eddie Redmayne is Newt Scamander in 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'
Other world: Eddie Redmayne is Newt Scamander in 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'

Paul Whitington

I've always imagined the walls of JK Rowling's house covered with drawings and notes interconnected by pins and string that allow her keep track of her bewilderingly complex magical other world. The legion of characters, back stories and sub plots in the 'Harry Potter' books would be too much even for Dickens, and this film - which will surely become a franchise - is based on an imaginary book she half mentioned in the first Potter novel, 'The Philosopher's Stone'. 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them', by Newt Scamander, was among the dusty and mysterious textbooks at Hogwarts, and Rowling published a kind of picture book based on the idea in aid of Comic Relief.

That was way back in 2001, but knowing her, the ideas for this new adventure were already clear in her mind. Interestingly, Fantastic Beasts marks her debut as a screenwriter: it's also the first time a Rowling-inspired film has appeared that isn't based on a pre-existing novel. Splendidly realised though they were, the Potter movies suffered sometimes from a slavish adherence to the books, which led to patches of dull cinema in between the fireworks. This film has no such encumbrances, and as a result truly soars.

It's set in New York City in the 1920s, and stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, an English wizard who arrives in America on a secret quest. A rare species of magic animal is on the loose in Manhattan, and Newt has devoted his life to preserving all manner of these fantastic beasts, despite the stern opposition of wizard officialdom.

He brings with him a magic suitcase stuffed with outlandish creatures that have an annoying habit of breaking loose, and soon meddlesome fur-balls and invisible monkeys are causing mayhem in the bustling city. But something altogether more frightening is also at work: a malevolent presence called an 'obscurial' has been destroying buildings and threatening the entire magic community with exposure. And Newt soon falls foul of agents from the Magical Congress, who are trying to track it down.

Chief among these is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful investigator who identifies Scamander and his creatures as a threat. But a Congress investigator called Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) comes to Newt's aid, along with her spectacular sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a clueless New York baker called Jacob (Dan Fogler). In other words it's the big guys against the little guys again, in a pitched battle played out across 1920s Manhattan.

What separates Fantastic Beasts from the common run of action fantasies is Ms Rowling's splendidly fertile imagination, and the sparkling wit and perfect pace of her screenplay. There is, inevitably, a large amount of CGI on display: not only is it seamlessly achieved but it's never given the chance to overwhelm the rich personalities that inhabit this relentlessly character-driven story.

The suitcase that swallows people whole is a wonderful conceit, and just one aspect of a rich visual universe of trickery and magic. There are, of course, references to the Potter films, but overall Fantastic Beasts feels like something refreshing and new: the switch in time and place helps hugely, and so does Newt Scamander, an endearingly eccentric character who may prove as durable as Dumbledore.

As played by Eddie Redmayne, he's diffident and unworldly, shy and determined, prone to chronic understatement and ever so slightly mischievous. It's a perfectly judged performance, and Colin Farrell is elegance itself playing the understated villain, Graves. Dan Fogler is very good as the clueless every-man, there are quivers of suppressed emotion in Katherine Waterston's Tina, and singer Alison Sudol is terrific as Queenie, the tender-hearted bombshell.

There's a real harmony about their ensemble playing, which is expertly conducted by David Yates. And in fact apart from a brief but shamelessly attention-seeking appearance late on from Johnny Depp, I really can't find fault with this film at all.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

(12A, 133mins)

5 Stars

Films coming soon...

Allied (Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan); Paterson (Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Cliff Smith, William Jackson); Mum's List (Rafe Spall, Emilia Fox, Elaine Cassidy); Magnus (Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov).

Irish Independent

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