Has JK Rowling been taking divination lessons at Hogwarts? With spooky clairvoyance, the first movie in her new five-film wizarding franchise opens with two factions in America at each other’s throats. No, not Republicans and Democrats. It’s 1926, and wizards and muggles (only in America they call them ‘no majs’) are on the brink of civil war. Oh, and in the non-magical world, a bully-boy heir to a fortune is wooing voters. Top of the class, JK!
‘Fantastic Beasts’ is basically a Harry Potter prequel (though you’ll get a detention for saying that). JK Rowling, writing her first film script, and longtime Harry Potter director David Yates have created an entirely new corner of the wizarding world. They strike a savvy balance between shiny new elements and recognisable ones for Potterheads. I’m not sure which is more adorable, Eddie Redmayne as eccentric magician Newt Scamander or the creatures he smuggles into the US in his battered and bottomless leather briefcase. Redmayne radiates a wet-eyed warm glow as stumbling, bashful Newt – an English wizard in New York. He’s perfect for Rowling’s world, where a kind heart is the most potent magical power of all.
Like a hot young David Attenborough with a wand, Newt is a bit of an eco-warrior, arriving in the US on a conservation mission to release into the wild a creature he’s rescued from captivity. The cutest of his beasties is the naughty Niffler, a kleptomaniaccross between a platypus and a cuddly penguin, with its expressive snout and Gollum-like thing for gleaming trinkets. When the Niffler breaks loose and scampers around New York stealing treasures, Newt goes in search with his new gang – two wizarding sisters (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler), a muggle – sorry, a no maj – who’s possibly more loyal and big-hearted than Ron Weasley. On their trail is Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, the brooding boss of security at the American Ministry of Magic.
It looks like we’ll be spending more time in the no maj world in this franchise than in the Potter films. Rowling cleverly delves into America’s history of witch trials, with Samantha Morton playing Mary Lou Barebone, a religious crazy who preaches hellfire and damnation.
There are not quite enough thrills in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ to keep you always on the edge of your seat, and no film-stealing baddie to dig your teeth into – but then Voldemort didn’t make a proper appearance until ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. Still, Farrell is in possession of some of the most menacing eyebrows in Hollywood, and we know that Johnny Depp is on his way as Dumbledore's nemesis Gellert Grindelwald. And Redmayne’s lovely performance sets up the emotional core of the franchise. So yes, the magic is still there.