I walked into the cinema and asked to see Fantastic Creatures – that was the level of excitement I had for the new Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
And I don’t mean I was so excited I forget the name of the film. No. On the excitement scale I was on the other end. (I’ve always been able to cheerfully skip Potter movies, and only saw four of the main franchise on the big screen.)
Good news: this is no Daniel Radcliffe-led clunker. He’s not even been born yet, let alone had his fateful run-in with You-Know-Who.
Instead it’s 1926, our first Potter period drama. Our hero is Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a socially awkward expert on magical and marvelous beasts.
We learn that Newt was expelled from Hogwarts after a ‘misunderstanding’ with one of his critters. So he’s really more Hagrid than Harry, although unlike the gruff half-giant gamekeeper, Newt is from a nice wizarding family, and gets to keep his wand and perform magic. He’s a posh Hagrid with connections and an education at agricultural college.
The bumbling British wizard is on a trip to New York, where witches and wizards are forbidden from befriending any No-Maj – that’s ‘Muggle’ to you and me. Unless you’re American, I guess. It’s really a no-magic, no-fun zone, New York, where they’ve banned everything.
Newt immediately blunders into the rotund and equally hapless No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler), and they accidentally swap suitcases. Only Newt’s case is a sort of Tardis kitty-basket, and his beasts are soon running amok all over New York, which is also being ravaged by an unknown magical destructive force that the wizard authorities are desperately trying to contain.
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The international climate is grim, as baddie wizard Gellert Grindelwald has begun his reign of terror.
Chuck religious nutter Samantha Morton into the mix with her one-woman anti-witch brigade, and Newt’s arrival is a headache for disgraced former Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her winsome sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who bond with the magizoologist and new sidekick Jacob.
A lot like their British counterparts, the American wizard government is secretive and oppressive – although more glam, with Carmen Ejogo as president and the incredibly handsome Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) stalking the alleyways. (Now this guy is something to brag about, while our British witches simper over the likes of Gilderoy Lockhart.)
I’m avoiding spoilers here, but Farrell was an inspired choice for a character that has to be slightly…ambidextrous? Director David Yates has also got one of the acting world’s young male standouts, Ezra Miller, as Morton’s adopted son Credence. It’s enough to make you wonder what the Potters could have been if the producers had been brave enough to ditch Radcliffe after the Columbus era.
Although it is nice to go in not knowing the story, and Farrell was a highlight (that casting twist was a blow), Beasts is a strange beast – a kind of chimera – part fun creature caper, part set-up for a franchise about the Hitlerish figure of Grindelwald and his wizarding war. It is only the first of five – and may end up being the weakest as it struggles to find its paws.