Director: David Yates (2016) BBFC cert: 12A
Let the magic of J.K. Rowling cast you back in time for another fabulous fantasy adventure. This prequel to her astonishingly successful Harry Potter series is a visually rich, fully realised world full of warm characters, cute critters and exciting action.
Set a full 70 years before Harry’s story starts, the story is shifted from the UK to New York in 1926. Our hero is Newt Scamander, an English wizard with the air and appearance of a foppish Edwardian gentleman adventurer. He carries a magic wand and a battered brown suitcase of surprising capacity. There are elements of TV’s Dr Who to his character. These include being expelled from his home, picking up companions to help out and describing himself as ‘annoying’ to other people.
However actor Eddie Redmayne is far too endearing a screen presence to be the spiky mannered Timelord and no-one in this film finds Newt annoying. If there is one major fault in the film it is this disparity between the script and the performance. This is not to say Redmayne is poor, far from it. His boyish charm encourages empathy at every turn and he gently underplays his scenes to allow others to blossom.
While shopping for a birthday present in New York, some of Newt’s beasts escape and the tourist falls foul of the President of wizards. As he tracks them down he is pursued by Colin Farrell’s dapper Director of Magical Security and his trench coat-clad henchmen.
Meanwhile an invisible creature is terrorising the city and a dark wizard called Grindelwald is on the loose and threatening war. There are chases, potions, magical battles, a speakeasy full of house elves and a menageries worth of extraordinary creatures.
Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol’s magical sisters provide the opportunity for romance. This is smart move by Rowling who recognises her key target demographic of longtime Potter fans are now adults. They may even have children of their own.
Redmayne’s generosity to Waterston, Sudol and Dan Fogler as a bumbling baker allow his co-stars to steal the heart of the film. We know we’ll meet Newt again, but we want to meet Jacob, Tina and Queenie again.
Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman and Jon Voigt add to the weight of acting talent and there’s a cameo by Johnny Depp. There are far fewer British actors in this film than in the Potter stories, possibly because those films attempted to exhaust our nations entire supply of thesps.
Rowling infuses her script with contemporary social commentary. She touches upon civil rights, the welfare of children, education and the conservation of endangered species. There are also asides on the demonisation of women in the media and their marginalisation in the workplace. The forces of darkness include a powerful newspaper magnate who are in cahoots with politicians, while an anti-witch cult is a barely concealed avatar for mainstream religion.
However Rowling’s tone is rarely preachy and she offers optimism, gentleness and nurturing. Building is emphasised over destruction and craftsmanship over mass production. The focus is kept firmly on entertaining the multiplex hordes.
There is a lot of detailed world building. We’re introduced to a city full of new characters, organisations and locations, many who will undoubtedly take centre stage in the next four films. We learn Newt has an older brother of some repute. I wonder if Benedict Cumberbatch’s agent is waiting by the phone.
Warner Bros are taking no chances with the continuation of their franchise phenomenon. They put the trusted director of the last four Potter films in charge and have backed him with all their creative, financial and marketing muscle. The opening moments are careful to include familiar images such as Hogwarts school to reassure us of their good intentions.
Though shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, UK, the tremendous sets and faultless CGI never suggest we’re not in the US. Several scenes were also shot on location in London and Liverpool. There are nods to the Men In Black franchise (1997-2012) and a particular work of Terry Gilliam.
There’s no sex, drugs, booze or blood to scare the kids and you don’t have to be a Potter fan to thoroughly enjoy this as a stand alone story. But if you are a fan of Rowling’s fantastical world, you’ll love it.