Five years on from the final instalment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we return to the Wizarding World for an enchanting tale of magical mayhem with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. There is no Radcliffe to be found as the story opens in prohibition-era New York, some 80 years before the events of The Philosopher’s Stone. Disembarking from his globe-trotting travels, we meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a Magizoologist on secondment from the Ministry of Magic.
The ecological themes of the story – which include the preservation and protection of magical animals are rendered with wit and heart – are aided by Redmayne’s unconventional, awkward hero. Bewitching moments come thick and fast, including scenes where Newt delves into a charmed suitcase, a zoo of sorts, packed with antechambers that link to a sun-soaked savanna, tropical rainforest, and an icy tundra where he shelters the creatures, all of which look like something straight out of Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. The wider story allows viewers to explore JK Rowling’s magical universe from a US perspective.
The hot topic of the day is how MACUSA (the US Magical Congress) are trying to stop No-Maj (Muggles) from discovering their world and preventing another Salem-like massacre of magical folk, resulting in the strict segregation between wizards and witches and humans, including no intermarriage. Newt stumbles into this drama, where his gaggle of galumphing magical creatures are contraband, and inevitably some escape causing chaos in the Big Apple. This is also the world where Grindelwald (Dumbledore’s one-time friend and now nemesis) is causing chaos in a manner not dissimilar to Voldemort.
This affords Rowling, in her impressive debut screenplay, and director David Yates, to link up chronologies of the Potter films without ham-fistedly patronising audiences or making it unintelligible to newcomers. While cynics may think this is another cash-in for Warners and Rowling, they would be wrong. A great deal of love, intelligence and effort have gone into crafting a more mature rendering of the Wizarding World, where pertinent themes of segregation, racism, international politics bubble in the narrative cauldron. This is accompanied by a charming quartet of performances from Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and Redmayne, in what is a Jazz Age magical extravaganza with heart. Spellbinding.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh