When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was first announced, eyes rightly rolled. Based on a spin-off textbook that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling wrote for charity, the premise of a feature-length film adaptation (with another four sequels in the pipeline) seemed like Hollywood at its most predictable: reluctant to let go of former glories, milking the good Potter name for all its worth.
Set in 1920s, this faux-prequel sees young British magician Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrive in New York and lose control of a briefcase full of banned magic creatures. What follows is essentially a drawn-out game of Pokémon Go, where our hero and his newfound allies (including an excellent Katherine Waterston) have to find the scarpering beasties and catch ‘em all before the American version of the Ministry of Magic get involved.
Series veteran David Yates is back in the director’s chair; after four of the pre-pubic wand-waver’s adventures, he manages to conjure up some of the magic of Potterverse without the security of falling back on Rowling’s most beloved characters. No easy task but he pulls it off by injecting some ebullient visual panache to the Gatsby-era setting, and is aided by a script brimming with inventive flourishes penned by Rowling herself. However, the immersive first half is undercut by an overstuffed second, which gets side-tracked by superfluous subplots, in view of setting up some franchise foundations. This waters down the magic and only highlights the choppy nature of the story’s structure, the over-indulgent focus on the titular creatures and the fact that the film over-stretches a meagre plot.
For all its shortcomings, there is enough in Fantastic Beasts to delight devoted Potterheads and to soothe suspicious fears of cynical studios desperately clinging onto the past. The craft and the allegorical content are to be applauded, as well as the American setting, which slyly tease out some parallels with recent events; whether it casts a spell memorable enough to merit a whole franchise is another, less certain matter.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them | Directed by David Yates (UK/US, 2016) with Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell. Starts November 17.