Fantastic Beasts and the baggy plotting

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes us back almost a century, to New York in the mid-1920s, 70 years before the Harry Potter saga starts and long before anyone has ever heard of the Boy Who Lived.

We arrive in The Big Apple with the not-yet-famous magizoologist Newt Scamander, the future author of the titular guide to magical creatures (a book that Harry, Ron and Hermione will be required to buy for their first year at Hogwarts).

Scamander’s trip to America is part of his research for this book, although what is meant to be a quick stop over in New York becomes an annoying adventure when his suitcase full of magical – and mischievous – creatures is inadvertently opened by a Muggle (or No-Maj, as they’re known in the USA), allowing them to run riot.

The animals’ antics are soon noticed by wizard and auror Porpentina Golstein, whose attempts to hand Newt over to her bosses are somewhat thwarted by the fact that she’s recently been demoted to the mail room, leaving her with little to no credibility in their eyes. Katherine Waterston plays the rather strait-laced Tina, alongside Alison Sudol as her beautiful, flirtatious sister Queenie.

Newt’s little disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the relationship between the magic and Muggle communities in this part of the world are fraught; a fact not helped by the intermittent appearance of a mysterious, powerful force that’s wreaking destruction on the city. American wizarding laws expressly forbid any sort of relationship between wizards and no-majs, while anyone who breaks the code of secrecy is severely punished – and magical creatures like those escaped from Newt’s suitcase aren’t known for being discreet.

On the other side of the fence are the Second Salemers, a society who take their cues from the Puritans of old, calling for all witches and wizards to be hunted down and eliminated. The leader of this small band is Mary Lou Barebone, played by a wonderfully aesthetic Samantha Morton, while Ezra Miller is her adopted son Credence, deeply withdrawn into himself after a lifetime of abuse.

While most of the characters that we know and love from the Harry Potter series are nary a twinkle in their parents’ parents’ eyes, the spirit of the series continues – and with it, some of the same criticisms that can be levelled at the earlier books and films, without the safe haze of nostalgia. One of the main problems with magic, and creating a world marinated so heavily in it, is creating limitations, something which JK Rowling has never quite mastered. You can’t help but feel that the film would have been a lot shorter had Scamander used magic more sensibly when his troubles began. On the other hand, what are the boundaries of magic? For every problem, there can appear a nifty solution – apart, of course, for death, unless you’re willing to tear your soul into fragments.

Fantastic Beasts also suffers from a very common ailment of modern blockbusters; the curse of baggy plotting. No one’s asking for Memento, but plot holes and pointless diversions can leave an audience feeling dissatisfied and restless. A stricter script editor and instructions not to exceed 2 hours’ running time wouldn’t have gone amiss.

That said, let yourself be taken along for the ride and there’s no denying it’s an enjoyable watch, as well as surprisingly funny. Using cute animals like the Niffler – an adorable badger-shaped kleptomaniac – for laughs might seem like low-hanging fruit, but it’s very successful. Meanwhile Dan Fogler as Kowalski, Newt’s new No-Maj friend, stands out as the comic touchstone of the film as he’s drawn into this strange new world, serving as a foil to the magizoologist’s eccentricities.

We’re given plenty of laughs, plus the kind of wonder you’d expect from a Potter movie, but on the flip side JK Rowling and director David Yates have managed to make a pretty dark film, once again addressing racial purity and totalitarianism, topped off with a helping of child abuse and religious dogma. The evil in the film is not always clear cut, while the shapeless force destroying buildings and New York streets remains a mystery for most of the film, creating a real sense of peril. We know that JK Rowling can do dark, but parts of this – perhaps unsurprisingly – feel like a more mature version of darkness.

This isn’t a film to win over critics of the Potter universe, but fans will find plenty to enjoy. And with two more films to follow, let’s hope they have the appetite for more…

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