When you realise you’re watching a mutated rhinoceros attempt to mount a slightly overweight New Yorker, it begins to dawn on you that we’ve come along way from the Harry Potter series. I was never the biggest fan of the HP movies despite my fondness of the books, and so when JK Rowling announced her pentalogy(?) movie deal of her beastly encyclopedia, I wasn’t exactly first in the queue to return to the wizarding world. Still, with Rowling in complete creative control you give it the respect it deserves, and with an old yet new feel on the backdrop of jazz age New York, Fantastic Beasts is the ideal introduction to the next big franchise.
The story follows Newt Scamander, a self proclaimed Magizoologist who travels to New York for reasons unknown at the time. His upcoming book ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ was a staple read for the likes of Harry, Ron and Hermione at Hogwarts, and this film chronicles the time prior to its release. Unfortunately, many of the creatures he keeps in his Mary Poppins-like suitcase break out into the streets of New York, requiring Newt and a ragtag group of acquaintances to round them up before the authorities catch wind.
The success of the film (and future entries in the series) rests on the interest and intrigue of the beasts the film chronicles. Not only is the design of them appealing, but they combine wonder, humour, cuteness and originality that has an almost Pokémon like effect on audiences. You want to find them all, learn their names and because of that watch Newt scower the landscape to find them. Because the film rides on these creatures it succeeds on audiences interest in them, and on that basis they hit all the right notes. Interacting with these CGI delights is a nicely balanced cast who make a good account of themselves, though it does take a while for them to find their footing. Redmayne himself is perfectly placed as the socially awkward Newt, and hopefully has enough interest in the series to stay with it through its run.
The other side stories of the film don’t work as well as anything that involves Newt’s extraordinary creatures. There is a blossoming love story between secondary characters that doesn’t sit right (despite the over obvious attempt to match the unmatchable) as well as a villain who’s motive is never all too clear, and so focusing on those aspects can take you away from the film’s charm. Rowling has on the whole used her magic to bring a new world to life that is inviting to all, but you do wonder whether the emphasis went on setting up this world rather than nailing its opener. There’s no doubt interest in the Fantastic Beasts encyclopedia will peak in bookstores and every other child will be after a Niffler for Christmas, but when the pressure is on for another franchise hit, emphasis has gone on keeping the Potter cash cow fed. This means punches have needed to be pulled as far as narrative was concerned, and with that the series can be watered down to fit five films. Only time will tell whether the seeds that have been sown here will grow in the future, but on early evidence it could really go either way.