The Harry Potter phenomenon may continue to create deafening levels of buzz with each new spin-off and sequel that is announced but it's also hard not to
be a mite cynical about it all too. It's hard to shake the feeling that this is one franchise cash-cow that is being relentlessly milked for all it's
This was especially apparent when an adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was initially green-lit. A film based on a fake textbook about magical creatures credited to one Newt Scamander instead of its actual author JK Rowling, felt like a film adaptation too far. Then finding out that it was just the first of five planned films and the collective eye-rolling of internet denizens not worshipping religiously at the altar of Pottermore was all too clear.
This is all a lengthy preamble however to say that the finished film itself thankfully makes a more than persuasive case that Rowling can happily do whatever she wants (not content with creating all things Potter, this marks her screenwriting debut), if the results are as wondrous and magical as this.
The set-up, Newt Scamander arrives in 1920s New York with a suitcase that contains countless magical creatures he has collected from all around the world in order to document and protect that then escape into the city, is the jumping off point for an impressive new addition to the Potter universe that never feels like it's too dependent on its more famous predecessor but isn't afraid to sprinkle the occasional reference to familiar characters and place names to keep the fans happy.
Key to making this feel fresh and unexpected however is the setting which is unlike anything we've seen before, with the paranoia and fear of a pre-depression era New York distrustful of all things magic-related vividly captured. It's all a far cry from Hogwarts and Diagon Alley and gives it a distinctive flavour all its own.
The wonderfully weird creature design is a joy to behold too. From the fairly small which includes the mole-like Niffler and his addiction to all things shiny and the cute Bowtruckles, a cross between baby Groot and a stick insect, to the larger creatures like the Erumpent, a glowing rhino/elephant hybrid and the majestic Phoenix-like Thunderbird. These are just a few of the many delights on offer and the special effects studios involved take Rowling's creativity off the page and run with it. The first visit inside the suitcase and the creatures within is a spectacular high-point.
An excellent cast help bring a welcome emotional dimension to all this visual splendour. Eddie Redmayne is at his most likeably eccentric as the shy and awkward Newt, not afraid to act the fool at times but equally adept at suggesting the sadness and heartbreak of his past. Katherine Waterston builds on the promise she showed in Inherent Vice, Steve Jobs and Queen of Earth as Porpetina Goldstein, a former Auror (a sort of magical FBI agent responsible for keeping purveyors of dark magic under control) and witch. Dan Fogler is very good and often very funny as Jacob, a No-Maj (US slang for Muggle) who, along with Porpetina, gets mixed up with Newt's stateside escapades. His emotional journey proves to be just as important and affecting as Newt's. Relative unknown Alison Sodul completes this heroic quartet as Porpetina's mind-reading sister Queenie.
The remaining cast includes strong turns from Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman and Carmen Ejogo plus very brief appearances from well-known faces (Zoe Kravitz, Gemma Chan) who will presumably play a greater part in subsequent films. This also includes a late A list star cameo which was sadly spoiled before release, blunting the surprise casting it could have been.
If I have a criticism it's that the film doesn't quite have a threat to rival 'He Who Must Not Be Named'. Several references to a powerful dark magician called Grindelwald was presumably supposed to have a similar effect to that which the name Voldemort had but there's little sense given of just how powerful he is.
It's a minor niggle however as the film as a whole is incredibly enjoyable. Potter fans should love it, but even I, as a very casual admirer who's seen the films but has little interest in reading the books, spent the majority of the film with a big smile on my face.
A thrilling and beautifully made fantasy blockbuster that serves as an enjoyable introduction to a world that clearly has many more splendid sights, worlds and creatures left to explore.
By Kevin Knapman
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
UK Release: Friday 18th November 2016