There’s something almost instantly delightful about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Set in prohibition era New York, around 70 years before the emergence of a certain boy wizard across the pond, JK Rowling’s new wizarding adventure may be full of allusions to the Harry Potter books and films (Hogwarts and Dumbledore both get a namecheck), but it never falls into the prequel trap of trying too hard to reverse-engineer a narrative to link up with what’s already out in the world. From the opening credits – full of live-action newspaper headlines from the wizarding press – it’s clear that in making her screenwriting debut Rowling has paid tribute to the global nature of her phenomenon in the best way: by creating an intricately worked-out universe with scholarly precision.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A) ****
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterstone, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler
This time out her hero is a shy “magizoologist” called Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who has devoted his life to traversing the world studying the titular fantastic beasts with a view to protecting them from extinction. Arriving in New York with a magical suitcase full of field samples, it’s not long he’s embroiled in chaos after some of the aforementioned creatures escape and start wreaking havoc on the muggle world, or “No-maj” world as New York’s wizarding community refers to its human inhabitants.
Redmayne plays Newt with such appealing bashfulness in these early scenes it’s hard not to be smitten and that charm factor is amplified by a rodent-like kleptomaniac known as a Niffler that steals as many scenes as it does shiny objects. This warmth is important too because Rowling has infused the film with dark undercurrents that director David Yates (who helmed the last four Potter films) makes no attempt to quell. A fanatical No-maj-led hate group known as the Second Salemers is trying to whip up anxiety in the press about the existence of witches. And there’s an X-Men-style ideological split brewing within the upper echelons of MACUSA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic.
You can read whatever contemporary relevance you like into this bigotry-filled world. Rowling is great at weaving such things into her stories, providing texture rather than mood-breaking subtext. But what’s good too is the film’s willingness to take its time establishing the friendship between Newt and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-maj who accidentally becomes privy to the magic world. They team up with magic investigator Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterstone) and her clairvoyant sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) to protect Newt’s creatures from Colin Farrell’s security obsessed Percival Graves, a powerful wizard who is growing tired of living in the shadows. The first instalment of a five-part saga, what follows is an undeniably big and entertaining fantasy adventure film. Happily, though, it doesn’t rely entirely on CGI trickery to cast its spell. Like its hero it’s full of magic, but endearingly modest with it.
*General release from 18 November