Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review: J.K. Rowling’s DNA shines

Magical hope: Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler (left) play Newt Scamander and his befuddled sidekick Jacob. Photo: Warner BrosFANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM


Adolescent wonder is never too distant but it’s the grown-ups who save the day in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spin-off from the Harry Potter universe set in 1920s New York. Expanding upon a fictional textbook she wrote in 2001 for her boy wizard to study, author J.K. Rowling returns to wands, wide-eyed disbelief and the gentle affirmation of friendship.

This is the first of the franchise’s five films, and a decent launching pad.

As so many newcomers to America once did, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives on a boat that sails past the Statue of Liberty. Possessed of a bow-legged gait, eyes that readily avert and a fringe so British the National Trust would preserve it, Newt studies and safeguards magical creatures, which are banned by the magical authorities in the film’s parallel American political realm.

Nonetheless Newt, whose safety protocols are frankly deficient, has a suitcase full of them, and they start to make mischief just as unforeseen events risk exposing the magical community to the vengeful wrath of the human world. In America, those without magical skills are referred to as no-majs, not the British muggles of Harry Potter, but neither the period nor the locale are that different. The incredible is still close at hand, although menace isn’t as compelling.

A mix-up with a no-maj named Jacob (Dan Fogler) gives Newt a sidekick and the movie a roly-poly figure of befuddlement, while magic official Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is all screwball angles. Their efforts to recapture Newt’s menagerie are deftly enjoyable, with the creatures a succession of unexpected escapees given form by Rowling’s screenplay and the direction of David Yates, who handled the last four Harry Potter films.

The accompanying plotting, with Colin Farrell as a senior lawman and rumours of a dark wizard’s presence that serves as a starting point for sequels, lacks the immersive feel of the original films. The relationship between Newt and either Porpentina or Jacob never establishes the bond the young protagonists established in Rowling’s original series, although Newt is right at home with a rueful, echidna-like creature that has an insatiable appetite for bling.

Harry Potter devotees will be delighted, as Rowling’s familiar creative DNA is reassuringly front and centre, but her otherworldly delight sometimes struggles to be persuasive. Throughout the film, as destructive swathes are cut through New York, the magical community with its black, female president (Carmen Ejogo) valiantly fix everything to maintain the status quo. The great fantasy in Fantastic Beasts is that everything can be put back how it was, no matter what happened.

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