12A – 133mins – 2016 – 3D
Just a handful of years after Daniel Radcliffe folded away his full moon specs, JK Rowling dips her toe back into her ever-popular Wizarding World with this prequel saga kickstarter, purportedly the first of five big screen adventures. With a screenplay penned by herself and with Potter #5-#8 alumni David Yates back in the director’s chair, Potterites had much to be optimistic about.
Eight decades before Harry debarked the Hogwarts Express for his first term, magizoologist-cum-author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City to unleash an endangered creature from his TARDIS-like suitcase of titular beasties into the wilds of Arizona. But when his carry-on Pandora’s Box falls into the hands of a No-Maj (the American term for a muggle), Newt must join forces with the confused cannery worker (Dan Fogler) to track down the quirky creatures accidentally unleashed into the urban jungle.
Meantime, a dual threat is simultaneously brewing from escaped evil-doer Grindelward (a name longtime fans will be more than familiar with) and a restrained young magic-doer primed to burst and discharge a dangerous Obscurus (a ball of dark magic which grows tumour-like inside a witch or wizard whose magical ability is ignored) onto an oblivious Big Apple populace.
Spun-off from the Hogwarts textbook of the same name released to aid Comic Relief back in 2001, Fantastic Beasts is undoubtedly a piece of assured and proficient filmmaking, combining equal measures of dark and light, drama and tension, romance and spectacle into a magical romp topped off with a sprinkling of nods to its parent franchise.
But as adept as The Theory of Everything Oscar winner Redmayne is at portraying a shy fop, an unconfident lead character is difficult to warm to – and Newt barely manages to look anyone in the eye in over two hours! Steve Jobs‘ Katherine Waterston as former Auror and Magical Congress employee Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein is – to be blunt – a little bland and unexceptional, leaving it up to the supporting cast (Alison Sudol as Tina’s spirited and sassy sis, Queenie, and Fogler, who nails befuddled without compromising Jacob Kowalski’s charm) to bring the spark to this intentionally smoky and washed-out alternative past.
Additionally, as colourful and awe-inspiring as some of the diverse magical beasts are, especially en-masse, there’s no escaping the nigglesome feeling that they are merely real animals (stick insects, rhinos, platypuses) with CG embellishments. Cheeky stand-out Niffler, for instance, can tuck treasures into the folds of his flabby belly, but he is, ostensibly, still a platypus, which hardly feels very creative or Fantastic.
I’m sure that with successful future instalments and further expansion to the franchise canon (and dictionary!), Fantastic Beasts will grow in charm the longer we live in this pocket of the Wizarding universe. But until the role of a certain Hollywood heavyweight most famous for swilling rum on the high seas is expanded upon in the forthcoming sequel, we will just have to customise ourselves with Newt’s social awkwardness.
CR@B’s Claw Score: