One of the most eagerly awaited films of the year, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, a Harry Potter prequel of sorts, finally arrives this week with much hoopla and frantic expectation.
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Happily, it works rather well – up to a point. It’s initially charming to look at, with an engaging story and a handful of attractive characters, though it somewhat loses its way when - as often happens - special effects elbow its story aside.
Eddie Redmayne, a thoughtful, committed actor who rarely puts a foot wrong, stars as Newt Scamander, a ‘magizoologist’ (someone who studies magical creatures) arriving in New York in 1926. He carries some of his creatures in his battered suitcase, but somehow manages to smuggle them into America.
He meets up with Jacob (Dan Fogler), a humble little man with ambitions to be a baker – and with two sisters – Tina (Katherine Waterston), a former dark arts investigator who initially wants to hand Newt over to the authorities, and Queenie (Alison Sudol), a breathy-voiced flirt with whom Jacob forms an instant mutual attraction.
But some of Newt’s creatures escape, and he and Jacob need to retrieve them before the city’s No-Majs, people without magical powers, learn of their whereabouts. (The No-Majs, then, are the equivalent of Muggles in the Harry Potter books and films.)
It’s worth noting that this marks J.K. Rowling’s first screenplay, and she faced a tough challenge – to adapt her 2001 Fantastic Beasts novel into a watchable film that could kick off another successful franchise, like the Harry Potter movies.
It starts promisingly, with strong characterisations. Redmayne, investing Newt with a shy, diffident charm, settles in swiftly as our hero. His new friend Jacob, as played by the little-known Fogler, is adorable, and the two contrasting sisters are equally watchable. And then there’s Colin Farrell, excellent as the villainous Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security (yes, that’s his title). Farrell plays up his sheer nastiness to the hilt.
It must be said that Fantastic Beasts looks wonderful. New York in the 20s has been brilliantly realised (largely at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire) and the city’s streets, its department stores, skyscrapers and speakeasies have been lovingly re-created. Even the jazzy music of the era is affectionately and accurately evoked.
The creatures? They’re the best special effects that money can buy, which means they were very expensive indeed. Overall, the film has the mark of quality that characterised the entire Harry Potter series.
Yet if I have a quibble with it, it’s that as it progresses, the leading characters give way to admittedly impressive computer-generated wizardry; as the human beings diminish, so does their story, and the film’s overlong final act in particular is over-dominated by the spectacle of buildings being wrecked, all via dark arts. All these special effects carry Fantastic Beasts dangerously close to film adaptations of Marvel comics. But Rowling’s story, bluntly, is better than a series of well-worn Hollywood blockbuster clichés.
None of this, I suspect, will matter much at the box-office. Commercially, this will be the film of the season, and it should be attracting sizable audiences well into next year.