For every Breaking Bad there must come a Better Call Saul. For every Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI there must come an episode I,II and III. For every Godfather 1,2 and 3 there must come a.... I don't know. And so, on a wet and rainy Wednesday night in dirty old London Town, the curtains pulled back to reveal the much anticipated prequel/tie-in/money maker from the pen of JK Rowling. The spirit of Harry Potter had risen like the ghost of Christmas past – to remind us of the good times. To be fair, the success of the Harry Potter franchise absolutely cemented the many zeros at the end of JK's bank account – meaning she could throw every Bic biro and Pukka Pad in existence into the bin and still come out all the richer for it. So it's to her credit she refused to walk away, realised there was still the flame of an (origin) story to tell. And tell it she does.
David Yates takes up the reins up as director here. Yates was also responsible for the final four Potter films, clearly the better half of the series. They were more mature, not only in their storytelling, but in the audience they were now reaching. As Harry, Ron and Hermione aged, so did their target audience. Fitting then, that that same audience should be waiting with bated breath for this latest incarnation.
Immediately, we’re right back where we left off as the Warner Brothers logo appears accompanied by the familiar chimes of the Harry Potter theme tune. But, it must be said, this film is very much its own beast. It begins following the footprints left in the snow by Potter, but then proceeds to stomp its own path very quickly. Hogwarts alumnus Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in prohibition-era New York City. Armed with nothing more than a wand and a suitcase full of Pokémon (sorry, fantastic beasts) he inadvertently unleashes the magnificent creatures on a world where magic has no place. As he crash-bang-wallops all over New York he befriends muggle, or nomaj as they call them on that side of the water, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). It’s Fogler who really is the star of this particular show and almost threatens to overshadow Redmayne’s performance with his own hilarious portrayal of a down-on-his luck baker. They add two more members to their ragtag group in Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her beguiling sister Queenie (Fine Frenzy). It's quite apparent very early on to work out that Newt, Jacob and Porpentina are very much the grown-up versions of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
But there is one big problem, one big elephant in the room – and that is how eminently smackable Redmayne is in this. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but Redmayne is channeling an autistic Hugh Grant in his performance of Newt Scamander. His every expression is infuriatingly awkward and not at all charming (though I suspect this is what he was going for). In fact, there’s a moment where Scamander vocalises how people usually find him annoying and how he envies Kowalski’s likability.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Redmayne. Was I not with him all the way as he rounded up a ginormous rhinoceros on a frozen lake? Was it not thrilling to see him whip a massive blue snake into a tiny teapot? The answer is yes, but this is down to Rowling’s script and Yates' direction. Rowling’s vision of these mystical worlds has never been in question and she has created a truly unique world here that will still surprise even the most die-hard Potter fans. As the group try their best to protect the fantastic beasts from forces that would do them harm, they discover that magic is a lot more damaging than they first thought.
On that note, in steps Colin Firth and Ezra Miller to add another layer to an already fascinating story. On an unconscious level it takes you right back to the feeling you got when "he who shall not be named" first reared his head. There’s been a lot of fuss about Ezra’s performance, and while it is fine, Farrell steals the show for me. The way he underplays his insidious nature is a stark contrast to Miller's more on the nose and typical performance. This duo clearly are the portents of something looming on the horizon and I relished every second they were on screen.
It's impossible to try to summarise such a sprawling and wondrous story so it's better you go in knowing very little of the spectacle about to take place. I will admit that despite being truly won over by the end I did question exactly what the point was. I mean, why bother collecting these fantastic beasts? They appeared to have no great significance in the wizarding world other than to provide a rather peculiar zoo inside Salamander's suitcase. Oh well, just go with it I suppose. These sorts of films don't work if you try to scrutinise the point of them. If fantastic beasts matter to Scamander, well, I guess we'l just have to take his word for it.
Strangely, as the Potter films began appealing to an older audience the more that time went on – this film seems a little muddled about who it’s aiming at. While the story has quite dark connotations and messages about xenophobia and the modern day burn-the-witch sentiment, it is shrouded in playful images of ludicrous monstrosities doing ridiculous things. But maybe that’s the point. It’s a dark and mad world and never more than in this post-Trump/Brexit period has there been a need for old-fashioned, light-hearted sanctuary. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them offers this in abundance. Though this is clearly the first of many films in this series, it has set out to prove that Scamander is no Potter and there’s a lot more to the wizarding world than we first thought. This'll be played year after year at Christmas time on TV much like the Potter films now are. In that environment, from the warmth of a living room with your loved ones huddled round, the film will work wonders. As a first glimpse into this brave new world of Rowling's it has my curiosity. Can it do enough with a follow up to grasp my attention?
Oh, and that cameo at the end. Outta nowhere.
EXTRAS: The featurette Before Harry Potter: A New Era of Magic Begins! (15:31); the five-part featurette Characters (24:19); the seven-part featurette Creatures (20:59); the six-part featurette Design (34:33); and 11 Deleted Scenes (14:33).