You have to give it to J.K. Rowling. Rather than spin-off fresh big-screen adventures for the generation-defining boy wizard, she and the Warner Bros team have created a completely different wizard saga: a new time, new place and entirely new characters in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.
That’s a heavy world-building job to do, so Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has a bit of the same dense exposition of the first two Harry Potter movies. Gladly, Rowling’s capacity for invention and some weirdly glorious new beasts like kleptomaniac platypus the Niffler, it greatly pays off, and, as you’d expect, it looks dazzling doing it.
The visual extravagant comes with a whole lot of story. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) from Hogwarts is fresh off the boat when he first encounters ‘No-Maj’/Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) outside a New York bank.
They’re carrying almost the same suitcases – Jacob’s has pastries while Newt’s is filled with mystical creatures he is studying – so you can guess one thing that might go horribly wrong immediately. At the same time, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) finds Newt and suspects him to be a danger to magical safety. That also potentially makes Newt her way back into the good graces of MACUSA, the local magical government agency and her employer.
Redmayne is as hard-working as Newt, who’s as always terrible with people as he is friendly and well-meaning, a sort of dotty know-it-all who peers up from under a shock of hair and avoids eye-contact. But he’s so disconnected and reserved that he barely changes facial expression from friendly blankness for the first half hour of the film, when we really need him to guide us around.
Instead, his new buddy Jacob is obviously served as our way into the mystical world and its comic relief, but his flirtations with Alison Sudol, as Porpentina’s sister Queenie, greatly suck screen-time really needed for Newt and Tina, the ostensible leads. It’s almost the end of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them before they get to link together – what a shame, because there is clearly fellow-feeling there and a mutual sense of purpose.
While the mains chase Newt’s fleeing creatures and mock the laws against fraternising with Muggles (or ‘No-Majs’), a dark prologue has warned of dark magician Gellert Grindelwald. MACUSA’s firm leader, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), is holding international summits about Grindelwald with characters who might be more essential down the line.
Meanwhile Picquery’s head agent, Graves (Colin Farrell) – persuasive but slightly tricky – investigates a destructive force that appears to attack the city at random, threatening to reveal the magical world to the rest of us. Many of these around the edges of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them story characters outshine better than the leads. That’s specifically true of Samantha Morton, spitting dangerous venom as witch-hater Mary Lou Barebone, and Ezra Miller, who’s bruisingly exceptional as her sorely abused eldest boy.
But Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has some structural issues. Rowling’s gang of magical beasts is fascinating, and brilliantly created by the special effects team, but they’re eventually a sideshow, and the countless action scenes to catch each one can drag. The moment when Oscar winner Redmayne doing a mating dance for a giant hippo-monster will haunt your mind, but it’s not what we need to see when there are truly sneaky dealings afoot across town. Only in the last act, when Newt focuses on the real deals and realizes the mystery to solve, that the film rises above, like Newt’s wonderful thunderbird Frank, into the heavens.