In 1926, Newt Scamander arrives at the Magical Congress of the United States of America with a magically expanded briefcase, which houses a number of dangerous creatures and their habitats. When the creatures escape from the briefcase, it sends the American wizarding authorities after Newt, and threatens to strain even further the state of magical and non-magical relations.
It only takes one word to scare a fantasy film fan: “prequel”. Years of bitter experience has shown that, more often than not, prequels mean lazy storytelling, bloated run times, and the unmistakable feeling that making a buck was the first thing on everyone’s minds. Even at 133 minutes the first all-original film set in the wizard-heavy world of Harry Potter largely avoids those pitfalls. It has its flaws, but it’s a fun, fully-realised film that can stand firmly on its own.
The year is 1926, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is barely off the boat in New York before his suitcase is getting him into trouble. He’s a kind of magical David Attenborough (with floppier hair), only he’s a bit more hands-on when it comes to preserving the magical creatures he discovers so his suitcase contains a lot more than shirts and an alarm clock. Unfortunately, he’s arrived at exactly the wrong time: an unknown magical force is wreaking havoc seemingly at random in the city and the local wizard governing body (known as MACUSA) is desperately trying to keep a lid on things. When one of Scamander’s creatures – a platypus-like Niffler, who has a fondness for shiny, expensive things - gets loose in a bank, disgraced auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) sees nabbing Scamander as her ticket back into her bosses’ good graces, while would-be baker and No-Maj (the American word for Muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) simply sees too much.
To be fair, the story (the screenplay was written by J.K. Rowling) is probably the film’s weakest point. The two main storylines – Scamander’s hunt to retrieve a gaggle of escaped creatures after his suitcase is swapped with Kowalski’s, and the growing kerfuffle around the increasingly public magical disasters – only gradually merge, while Rowling’s novelistic approach means there’s a surplus of slow burn subplots that take their time before paying off (and presumably some, like the power grab by the No-Maj Shaw family headed by Jon Voight, will pay off in future instalments).
So while the efforts of chief auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to groom tormented teen Credence (Ezra Miller) into helping him find the cause of the magical destruction (behind the back of Credence’s adoptive mother and puritanical anti-Wizard activist Mary Lou Barebone, Samantha Morton) are interesting enough, it’s frustrating that they don’t really connect to the main plot until close to the climax. This is a film as much about creating a world as telling a story; it’s lucky then that the world it’s creating is a magical one from first frame to last.
"This is a film as much about creating a world as telling a story."
Director David Yates (returning to the franchise after a workmanlike job with the final four Harry Potter films) re-creates roaring '20s New York as a vaguely sinister place of too-wide streets and too-new buildings while giving the world of American magic a distinct look that’s all streamlined art deco against Hogwarts’ old English charm. The many magical creatures great and small are captivating – while the story itself skews grown-up, the creatures are must-sees for kids – and the magical set-pieces are always thrilling, even when they’re just someone using their powers to cook dinner.
Likewise the cast play their roles to the hilt, with the central quartet – Redmayne, Waterston, Fogler and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) – giving off star-wattage charm even though their characters often feel underwritten. Their big advantage is that they’re playing people who are decent rather than deep (though there are hints; Tina seems a bit fragile for a tough dame, while Scamander has a war hero older brother). The only time the story shades into grey is the notion that repressing who you are (when you have magic powers) is bad – only here “bad” means you become something akin to a human bomb.
With the massive success of the Potter franchise backing her up, Rowling seems to have slightly more leeway than most franchise caretakers when it comes to telling a story. This hardly ends on a down note, but its conclusion does feature more than the usual melancholy for a children’s film about collecting magical creatures. Part of that boils down to it being the first in a five-part series: if the good guys had absolutely everything going their way there wouldn’t be anything to bring viewers back. But there’s also the grown-up sense that even victories have their down side. The magicians of MACUSA might be able to restore the physical world to an undamaged state; the human heart is a little more fragile.
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