Given the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise, further adventures from the famous boy wizard seemed inevitable. It’s to J.K. Rowling’s credit, then, that she resists the temptation to simply pick up where she left off and instead open up an entirely new saga in a new era and a new location. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might lack the emotional heft of its predecessor, but with some dark twists and a generous helping of Rowling’s inexhaustible imagination, it has a beguiling magic all its own.
It helps that this new adventure is far removed from Hogwart’s ever shifting corridors with the action apparating to New York during the Roaring Twenties. The Big Apple is as dazzling as ever, the ornate period trappings infused with Rowling’s incredible knack for fantastical world building. Inanimate objects spring to life all over the place, odd creatures pop up in the background and every frame looks like it’s been sprinkled with fairy dust, creating a world that feels warmly familiar and yet fresh and enticing at the same time.
Into this bustling metropolis stumbles Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, the wizarding world’s foremost magizoolologist on the last leg of an expedition to examine the globe’s most magical beasts. Redmayne is impeccable casting as wizarding-Hugh Grant Newt, a fumbling, well-mannered Brit who’s better with animals than people. He’s certainly an endearing presence but doesn’t quite convince as the courageous hero needed to carry a franchise. Perhaps he should ask his old pal Professor Dumbledore for help?
Fresh off the boat, he bumps into walking comic relief Jacob, a NoMaj who carries a suitcase indentical to Newt’s own Tardis-inspired luggage. The inevitable mix up and ensuing slapstick attempts to recapture Newt’s escaped critters is the film’s weakest part. The ‘beasts’ are impressively bonkers – snake birds, clingy saplings, a kleptomaniac platypus – but they feel entirely irrelevant in comparison to the darker events happening elsewhere.
Those hoping to be distracted from the US election’s bitter fallout will be dismayed to find the themes of prejudice and intolerance rear their ugly heads again. A shadowy opening forewarns of dark magician Grindewald ransacking muggle targets across Europe while American authorities MACUSA, led by imperious President Seraphina Picquery, scramble to keep their people concealed. Meanwhile, Picquery’s top agent Graves (Collin Farell) investigates a powerful force that seems to be levelling parts of Manhatten at random.
Many of these supporting players offer more impact than the leads. This is especially true of Samantha Mortan’s cruel Mary Lou Barebone, who uses her Oliver-style orphanage to spread the word of her anti-witch cult The Second Salemers, and Ezra Miller’s tortured Credence, who suffers the brunt of her abuse.
If Fantastic Beasts pales in comparison to Harry Potter in any area, it’s the near complete absence of emotional stakes. Whereas Harry versus Voldemort was a battle steeped in a long, bitter history, these characters are so far removed from each other that their supposed connection fails to resonate. We’re left with yet another CGI monster obliterating skyscrapers in place of a thematically poignant resolution.
Not that any of this is ruinous; far from it. Despite its flaws, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers unparalleled visuals and a dazzling ambition that’s been sorely missing these past few years. And with much of the heavy lifting now out of the way, there’s plenty of room to explore the saga’s darker angles in future instalments. On the basis of what we’ve seen here, this adventure will have us all spell-bound for years to come.