Friday, 25 November 2016

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

JK Rowling’s first screenplay is beautifully realised but can’t avoid feeling ‘franchisey’

Written by Jason Solomons


Based on a textbook taught to young wizards at Hogwarts, this new portal in the JK Rowling wizarding world puts Eddie Redmayne’s bumbling, gentleman magizoologist Newt Scamander at the heart of the story.

Although it’s a prequel set in 1926, it’s instantly recognisable as Rowling’s vision, but this owes just as much to the reassembled production team behind the Harry Potter franchise, including David Yates, director of the last four films, and outstanding production designer Stuart Craig.

And herein lie both the triumph and the pitfalls. It looks a billion dollars, most of which it will surely make back over the promised run of four more Scamander films. The Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-1761920s New York set, built at Potter HQ at Leavesden Studios, has all the teeming detail of The Godfather II or once Upon A Time In America, though not quite the atmosphere.

Into this world, off the ocean liner, arrives newt with his shabby suitcase, standing in line at Ellis Island. The luggage is key, like Dr Who’s Tardis, a gateway to an entire realm, and as a screen gimmick it works wonderfully, a literal bag of tricks that can usher in any plot line or adventure whenever needed. It’s where Newt keeps his eponymous beasts, some of whom like to scrabble their way out now and then, like the rather cute niffler, a mole- meets-platypus thing who stuffs shiny objects into a fur pouch. Newt spends a lot of the movie trying to get the beasts back into the case, particularly after he mixes it up with one owned by an immigrant baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski is the archetypal no-maj – the American term for muggle, ie, literally one who has no magic – and it is through his ever- widening eyes that we witness the high jinks as he and newt dash around New York rounding up beasts. Fogler becomes a believer in magic, while Redmayne’s major success is in acting affectionately opposite special-effects creations.

But the beasts on the loose risk exposing the wizarding world to the no-majs, and that’s why Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein and her breathy sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) get involved, escorting Newt and Kowalski to the world of MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America), where tensions are simmering, threatened by the presence of a ‘dark wind’ blowing in from Europe. There are also the protests of the Second Salemers, a quasi-religious anti-magic faction led by Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barebone and her fervent family of adoptees (among whom Ezra Miller’s Credence is the standout turn).

While this suspicion of ‘aliens’ resonates in this most tumultuous of political times, it also means that, like Newt’s leather case, the film’s rather overstuffed. Individual episodes are visually inventive but there’s an overall lack of cohesion. This is Rowling’s first screenplay, a skill requiring far more economy than her large novels ever exercised.

The titular beasts, you eventually realise, serve no dramatic function, but what really disappoints is that where the Harry Potter films felt entirely original, there’s a ‘franchisey’ feel to Fantastic Beasts, following the now-predictable rhythms of a Marvel origins movie and less of the eccentric English charms of Harry and his chums.

For all the ruffled, public-school appeal of Redmayne and the physicality of his performance, newt remains a solitary figure, forever in search of a smile. Something more is needed, a bit more wit, perhaps, or dare I say it, some sexual tension.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has the makings of a huge family blockbuster, but all the bloated traps of one, too. It hasn’t quite got the balance right, but, as the title hints, surely knows where to find it – a good rummage inside Newt’s battered leather suitcase is all that’s needed.


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