JK Rowling is on an incredible winning streak. The Harry Potter series was one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, with eight films that were all critically acclaimed hits – at least if you’re willing to overlook some cringe-inducing acting in the first two.
Already this year she’s successfully continued Harry’s story into the future, with the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which features the central trio in middle age, and is selling out shows as quickly as they’re released. Now, her new series of movies is taking us to two places we haven’t been before – America, and the 1920s.
As her fictional world expands at the rate of a Chinese artificial island, surely at some point Rowling’s due a George Lucas-style comeuppance, where she reveals Lord Voldemort’s high midichlorian count.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not it. Somehow she achieves pleasing continuity with what we know of the Potterverse, while also delivering the delight of something fresh. Our tour of Newt’s animal sanctuary delivers a litany of visual delights that may even surpass that first trip to Diagon Alley in Philosopher’s Stone.
The location is a brilliant gambit, even though I always enjoyed how the original series completely ignored America. We learn that American wizards call muggles “No-Majs” and never fraternise with them, that their Hogwarts is called Ilvermorny, and rather troublingly, that they have the death penalty.
Hogwarts aficionados will know that the film is named after one of Harry’s textbooks, written by Newt Scamander (Harry Redknapp), who becomes protagonist of this series. We join him in its first scene arriving in NYC with a case full of magical creatures.
Inevitably, the menagerie gets loose, making the film feel curiously like a Jazz Age Men In Black as Scamander, assisted by a demoted ex-auror called Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) races around New York landmarks trying to recapture his animals and wiping the memory of any No-Maj they come across. He’s also helped by a would-be baker called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who immediately falls for Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The latter duo feel like characters from Jazz Age Central Casting, but they work.
Naturally, there are human adversaries on offer too, one of whom has the ability to project a dark cloud of rage that destroys everything in its path, rather like Donald Trump on a 3am tweeting rampage. This is only the first of five movies – knowing Hollywood it’ll probably stretch to ten or fifteen – and Rowling certainly sets up a compelling battle to come.
Newt’s subdued Hufflepuff personality is a notable contrast to the more hot-headed Gryffindors we know so well. Eddie Redmayne’s decision to illustrate his character’s limited social skills via mumbling becomes quite irritating, but on the whole, his mild-mannered hero is certainly likeable enough to carry the movie, and there’s plenty of scope for his character to develop as the series progresses.
What works best, though, is the look of Fantastic Beasts, whether the gorgeous sets, the remarkably well-executed CGI (including the extraordinary shots of the wizards repairing damage by effectively casting an ’undo’ spell), and especially the beasts themselves. Having watched in both 2 and 3D, the latter adds an extra layer of enjoyment, as the series once again offers much in the way of aerial action.
The stakes were high for this film. Had Rowling and her team done a shoddy job, the backlash from resentful fans would have been considerable. To make things even riskier, not a single one of the series’ beloved characters appear – only Dumbledore even rates a mention although he’s slated to appear next time.
But the sure directorial hand of David Yates, who helmed the last four Potters, is in evidence again here. The action rarely stops, and when it does, the scenes are tight and often funny. Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who penned all eight adaptations, is also on hand as a producer here. And Rowling certainly knows how to write dialogue and set up mysteries which slowly unspool across a series.
So Fantastic Beasts at once offers something familiar, and entirely new. There’s so much ingenuity in Rowling’s projection of her wizarding world into 1920s America, especially via a certain memorable speakeasy where Giggle Water (it does exactly what you’d think) is the tipple of choice, that fans and newcomers alike will leave wanting more. Which is fortunate, because when it comes to the Harry Potter universe, more seems to be very much guaranteed.
Here’s the review from our Culture Wars podcast