Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them a surprisingly bleak crowd-pleasing doozy
Eddie Redmayne is a charmingly ill-at-ease hero in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, which sees JK Rowling and several Harry Potter production alumni reuniting to conjure up some of that old magic, writes Damon Smith
THE pixie dust may have settled on Harry Potter's cataclysmic battle with Lord Voldemort, but author JK Rowling isn't ready to cast an Evanesco vanishing spell on her world of warring wizards just yet.
Inspired by a faux textbook, written in 2001 to benefit Comic Relief, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a rollicking spin-off set several decades before the escapades of the boy wizard with a lightning bolt-shaped scar.
It's also the first film penned for the screen by Rowling and is a surprisingly bleak affair about tolerance, prejudice and integration that strikes an ominous chord following the racially divisive rhetoric of the US presidential election.
"I know you have rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people," British magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) tells an American counterpart.
Tensions between No-Majs (the clunky Americanism for Muggles) and spell-casting folk underpin every scene of David Yates's visually sumptuous picture – the opening chapter of a five-film franchise that will be apparating into cinemas until 2024.
As origin stories go, Fantastic Beasts... is a crowd-pleasing doozy. Zealots called the Second Salemers, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller), preach hell and damnation in 1926 New York, following a reign of terror perpetrated by dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).
Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives in the Big Apple at the height of this paranoia, carrying an enchanted suitcase with hidden pocket-dimensions full of endangered critters.
A No-Maj called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) accidentally picks up Newt's luggage and releases otherworldly species in breach of the Statute of Secrecy. Beasties go on the rampage and Newt attempts to recapture them aided by Jacob, a former Auror called Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), Director of Magical Security, is convinced that Newt's illegally imported creatures are responsible for a brutal attack.
He declares war on the fugitives in a city where dark forces are gathering.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them reunites director Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films, with other Hogwarts alumni, including editor Mark Day, production designer Stuart Craig and visual effects supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz.
The look and feel of this opening instalment is comfortingly familiar, including John Williams's iconic theme, which composer James Newton Howard appropriates for his score.
Redmayne is a charmingly ill-at-ease hero, whose unerring dedication to creatures in his care draws fond parallels with Hagrid.
Waterston is a spunky, if underserved, foil, while Fogler and Sudol – channelling the sex bomb naivete of Marilyn Monroe – illuminate their swoonsome romantic comedy subplot.
The beasts are a menagerie of the weird and wondrous, including an emotionally needy woodland biped called a Bowtruckle and a long-snouted burrowing mammal called a Niffler, which hoards shiny things.
Set and costume design, embellished with digital trickery, are flawless and No-Maj Jacob speaks for all when he first glimpses behind the wizarding curtain.
"I don't think I'm dreaming," he tells himself. "I don't have the brains to make this up!"
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (12A, 133 mins) Fantasy/Adventure/Action/Drama/Comedy/Romance. Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Johnny Depp. Director: David Yates.