Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Film Review
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller
Director: David Yates
There's certainly an appetite for more from author JK Rowling's Wizardly world.
The universe has been left bereft of a family friendly fantasy franchise since Voldemort bit the dust - as is evidenced by the stage appearance of the Cursed Child.
So it's perhaps inevitable that there's a degree of cynicism at the thought of 5 new films from a similar world of wizards, magic and commentary given how the Harry Potter series felt a little dragged out as it stumbled toward its denouement. (Can anyone say cash cow?)
But with a director of four of the Harry Potter films at the helm, it has to be said that Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them largely gets off to a reasonably magical start.
Set in 1926 New York, it's the story of nerdy, unsure and sheepish Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, channeling shades of Matt Smith's 11th Doctor Who in parts) whose life has been spent collecting creatures, and storing them in a cavernous suitcase (a sort of leather bound portal into a Narnia / TARDIS style zoo of gigantic proportions).
But when Scamander accidentally loses one of the creatures, his hunt brings him into contact with genial wannabe baker and no-Maj / Muggle Jacob (played with doughy amiability by Fogler). Complicating matters further Scamander inadvertently swaps his suitcase with Jacob's, and plenty of the creatures get out - so begins Scamander's gotta-catch-em-all Ghostbusters style quest before tensions between humans and wizards boil over...
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them works fine as a first film, even if there is a feeling that the main cast don't quite have the chemistry and back-story of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione.
Comparisons are perhaps unfortunately inevitable to Rowling's prior franchise and while they serve to show the characters and their supporting ilk aren't as well-rounded out as they could be, there's plenty to marvel at visually on screen as the various critters and creatures come to life. To its credit, it doesn't spend a great amount of time setting up a world we already know that exists and simply gets on with proceedings.
In the first sequence where Jacob is summoned into Scamander's suitcase, it's clear the MO is to show off an array of cutesy creatures that will elicit shrieks of awe and wonder from the audience - and there are times when it appears that the film teeters dangerously into only having this in its magic box to show off (and leaving some doubts about how a further four films could be filled out).
Rowling's obviously aiming to talk more to the audience that's grown up with her books and who are of the age to understand bigotry, intolerance and a degree of bleakness.
In Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, there is a puritanical woman determined to drive out witches and who wouldn't be out of place in Salem (played by Morton, who's given little time and little more to do other than glower), a clutch of adopted children who are clearly traumatised by events and there's a hint of an ongoing conspiracy, complete with albino cameo, to keep the adult side a little more engaged.
However, there is a nagging feeling that some of the humanity is a little lost in this first film and parts of the plot are muddled, which is a marvel of imagination and acute period detail, with elements of Men In Black thrown in.
By far the most charming elements come from the slapstick and heart of loveable schlub Fogler, as he negotiates the wizarding world and finds himself under the spell of showgirl Queenie (Sudol), in an endearing romance that it's hard to not lose your heart to.
Redmayne's fine as the cowed and shy Scamander whose awkwardness is half parts endearing and half parts frustrating, and Waterston makes a strong start only to be subdued in the slightly laggy final third of the film which relies on the usual CGI -trashing-of-a-city trope.
Ultimately though, niggles aside, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is at times a magical experience that swathes some of the fluffier more slapstick fun elements in a welcome darkness that's redolent of real-life and the usual Rowling plot machinations.
While it may use the CGI concoctions to disguise some of the less robust characters, it's likely to be enough fun to obfuscate audiences and separate them from their money, and with some more adult themes and some dark current allegories in play, it's clear this solid wizardly movie will magic up all the family box office money regardless of what any critics say as the new franchise begins.