Heaven knows we could do with some magic right now. Back in 2001, when J.K. Rowling first sketched out her textbook spin-off from the Harry Potter series, she could scarcely have foreseen what forces would be at play in the Western world come the end of 2016. Then again, some threats remain eternal. Fifteen years on, the film version of Fantastic Beasts – directed by David Yates, from a screenplay by Rowling herself – emerges at the exact right moment to snaffle hearts and pocket money alike: here are two-and-a-bit hours of first-rate distraction-cum-bedazzlement that nevertheless run close enough to current events as to feel like some pop-cultural pep rally.
Rowling, Yates and super-savvy producer David Hayman here expand the Potterverse to the US via the sort of migrant’s tale that moved us in 2014’s Paddington and last year’s Brooklyn. The traveller here is Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a fantasyland Attenborough (and purported author of that textbook) who arrives in 20s New York clutching a single suitcase containing the many rare creatures he’s collected upon his travels. Little does he know it, but he’s stepped into the epicentre of a cosmic tussle between good and evil.
It takes a while to establish who’s who, but broadly, the forces of liberation – operating out of a prototypical UN – encompass Carmen Ejogo as the West’s first female president of colour, Colin Farrell as her unsmiling second-in-command, and a sparkling Katherine Waterston, seemingly styled after Olive Oyl, as the loose-cannon cop who becomes Newt’s guardian angel. The forces of oppression count among their number Samantha Morton as a hate preacher keen to initiate a new Salem, Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin’s demon seed) as her resentful adopted son, and Jon Voight as a newspaper magnate whipping up anti-wizard sentiment. Already, you can see why FB might chime with the reality of late 2016.
What’s immediately noticeable is that this is Rowling on a bigger canvas, both rebooting and upgrading that universe the movies first began constructing back in 2001 (and which may now look a touch dated to 21st century consumers). Yates, who steered home the Potter franchise, has the budget this time to go beyond Hogwarts and sweep over a meticulously recreated period New York, while his VFX team have a field day, amusing themselves (and us) in cramming every frame with funny in-jokes and Easter eggs. I suspect the self-operating iron will be on many Christmas lists this year; but you’ll also coo at the characterful menagerie – giant dung beetles, clingy stick insects et al. – bursting forth from Newt’s carry-on luggage, and chuckle heartily at the moving illustrations adorning the covers of the books these characters take to bed with them. (At last, accompanying adults may say: a blockbuster that promotes reading.)
These throwaway pixellations admittedly prove more playful and striking than the smash-up-the-city finale by which Fantastic Beasts fits the modern event-movie template, but generally Yates strikes a satisfying balance between the human and the virtual. If Redmayne’s twitching and eyelash-fluttering seems a leftover from The Danish Girl – and his rump-shaking before a horny CG rhino is flatly demeaning – this performance grows on you, and Newt is that species of naïf youngsters will likely adore. And while Yates doesn’t have RADA’s finest with which to bulk out his supporting cast this time, he displays a sharp eye and ear for enjoyable American types. He has a real boon in Dan Fogler as the muggle baker who gives good, uncomprehending cutaway whenever events get too fantastical, while Alison Sudol offers a better quality of flapper than Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby provided; the closing moments also give rise to an unusually effective star cameo.
It would work just as well as a standalone for kids who’ve never heard of Ron Weasley, but retaining the steady Yates’s services ensures the new film coheres with the Potterverse’s best qualities – not least Rowling’s ongoing interest in the fight for a kinder, more caring world. Her creative philanthropy here extends to imagining a humane form of execution by the state, although elsewhere her Britishness shines through: an entire setpiece is built around the safekeeping of a teapot, and there’s a restorative final-reel rainstorm. It’s typical of a major motion picture event that delivers its spectacle while keeping an eye on the small stuff and out for the little guy – high-quality, high-reward product that those of us in the cheap seats probably needed from the dream factory at a point where reality was getting a touch hard to take.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is now playing in cinemas nationwide.