A fantastic return to the Harry Potter universe

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Newt Scamander

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them – Newt Scamander Poster

The rich world of Harry Potter has a huge following, and it was almost inevitable that we would get to see more of it on the silver screen after the cinematic success of the original series of seven films.

Indeed, the film begins with a musical cue that leaves you in no doubt about the universe this film inhabits.

Instead of being a poorly derived cash-in on a successful franchise, I’m looking at you Batman and Superman post-Christian Bale, JK Rowling’s Potter cinematic universe can only gain momentum from starting a new series with a superior film.

After the titular book was published in 2001 to raise money for Comic Relief, development for the film began after the Potter series had finished.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers us a beautiful rendition of 1920s New York, set 70 years before the Potter books, populated by some well realised characters playing out an enthralling plot.

Newt Scamander with a Fantastic Beast

Newt Scamander with a Fantastic Beast

Eddie Redmayne channels Matt Smith’s Doctor, mannerisms and perhaps even style of costume, as Newt Scamander – a wizard who was named but never featured in the original Harry Potter films – but this is more than just an episode of Doctor Who with a bigger budget.

It wasn’t a stretch to imagine a sonic screwdriver in Redmayne’s hand rather than a wand throughout this film, though.

Scamander rushes around the City looking for some escaped beasts from his magical suitcase which he has brought with him to America.

Aiding him along the way is a “No-Maj” – American for muggle (non magic user) – called Jacob Kowalski with a scene stealing performance by comic actor Dan Fogler.

As well as having to deal with Scamander’s missing beasts, they become embroiled in a side plot in which mysterious goings on are witnessed in New York which may or may not have something to do with the beasts or something else even more dangerous.

Fogler’s Kowalski is a well meaning and warm friend and ‘assistant’, to continue the Doctor Who comparisons, and they become a foursome with the addition of Katherine Waterston as Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, a demoted former Auror (investigator) working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), and her telepathic sister Queenie Goldstein (played by Alison Sudol).

Fantastic Beasts has modern touches in a period fantasy movie

Despite being set in 1926, Fantastic Beasts finds time to draw parallels with modern-day 2016, with a black female president of MACUSA contrasting with a US senator who has some unpopular views, and a shady Auror – Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) – who appears to be out for himself and is dealing with an anti-witch zealot May Lou Barebone (a very scary Samantha Morton) who has ‘adopted’ children including a boy named Credence (Ezra Miller) and a young girl named Modesty.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them - Barebones family

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them – Barebones family

The Graves-Barebone sub-plot feels like a different film – an intense search for a potential magical entity capable of of mass destruction – which contrasts with some of the more fanciful and lighter moments provided when Scamander and Kowalski meet up, meet some of his animals, and get together with the Goldstein sisters.

The plots begin to merge together into a climax which offers only a slight twist on genre norms but is held together beautifully thanks to warm characterisation between the four main protagonists and plenty of goodwill from earlier comic scene setting moments.

I had only seen the first five Potter films, having never seen the last two, and had never read any of the books but this felt like an instant immersion into a familiar yet different universe.

Veteran director David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, can take the plaudits for the work done to make this possible – and yes, we do get plenty of nods for fans of the series and the genre in general.

There’s a few nice moments for Potter fans including a name-check for Albus Dumbledore, future headmaster of Hogwarts, and potentially a character who could be involved in one of the four planned sequels.

It’s only inevitable that quest movies have an action-led climax, and while it was almost too long, we also saw a cameo appearance for Johnny Depp as evil wizard Gellert Grindlewald with a promise of more of him in a future sequel.

Mercifully this film didn’t outstay its welcome, adding a crowd-pleasing coda for Queenie and Jacob which had the audience in my screening applauding at the end.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (12A, contains moderate threat, 133 minutes)

Summary: A fantasy adventure drama, set in 1920s New York, in which a wizard becomes involved in a battle against dark forces that threaten the city.

RATING: ****