FILM REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts – No Potter is the best kind of Potter for this blogger

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 – dutifully – saw four out of the eight original franchise on the big screen.

The good news: this is no Daniel Radcliffe-led horror. It is 1926, and we have a proper actor, Eddie Redmayne, as Newt Scamander, a socially awkward expert on magical and marvelous beasts.

We learn he was expelled from Hogwarts after a ‘misunderstanding’ with one of his critters. He’s more Hagrid than Harry,  only unlike the gruff half-giant gamekeeper, gangly Newt is from a good wizarding family, and gets to keep his wand and perform magic. He’s the intellectual Hagrid. The Hagrid with connections.

The British wizard is on a work trip to New York, where witches and wizards are forbidden from befriending any No-Maj – that’s ‘Muggle’ to you and me.

Newt immediately bumbles into rotund No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler), and they accidentally swap suitcases. 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. (I’m just going to assume you know who he is.)

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 his new sidekick.

A lot like their British counterparts, the American wizard government is secretive and oppressive, but more glamorous, 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?

Freed from the bland casting that shackled his previous Potters, 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.

Beasts is the same universe and from the same pen (it’s Rowling’s first screenplay), but it’s a world away from the twee, leaden movies with overgrown, scowling child actors, each pompous installment touted as “darker” than the one before, their portentousness undermined by Radcliffe’s inability to do anguish.

No, Beasts is a dark story right away. The difficulty is that it is also a fun creature caper, while also doing the work of setting up a new franchise, with four (FOUR!) sequels to follow, which I presume will only get more serious.

It is nice to go in not knowing the story, and Farrell was a highlight (that casting twist will be radioactive going forward), making Beasts my favourite Potter – that’s at least until we get Young Dumbledore, and more on Newt’s own tragic backstory.

Yup, I’m finally excited for Potter.

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