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Steamrollering into our interesting times, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — the new fantasy blockbuster scripted by JK Rowling— begins as an immigrant story. There is Lady Liberty welcoming us to Ellis Island at the start of the first of five movies due to be spun off from the edifice of Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Where we’re spinning is the past — the New York of 1926, approached by a bashful young man in a flamboyant coat. His name is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). The customs officer is unsurprised to find he holds a British passport.
Scamander, as you guessed, is a practitioner of magic. But he is living in a dark moment. Anti-wizard sentiment is rife in Manhattan, even before the sidewalks are ruptured from beneath by mysterious forces. But for Newt, the first order of business is the escape from his wriggling suitcase of more than one strange creature just arrived in America. For he is, apparently, a “magizoologist”, guardian of exotic animals threatened by the current mood. Soon, human friends have gathered too, including a tough-cookie witch (Katherine Waterston) and sweet-natured everyman (Dan Fogler). Between them and the menagerie, the movie sets a tone of antic thrills and spills. But with a long-term story arc to launch, something wicked also comes, and cliffhangers artfully dangle.
The girdered backdrop of old New York is a CGI marvel, still growing into its modern self, the skyline low in places it now soars. And in the city still under construction we find Rowling, with her potent gift for fictional “world building”. For all the pressure bearing down on it — how badly the creaking movie industry could do with five sure-fire box office smashes — it feels, remarkably, like a tale told for the fun of it.
The good news extends to the cast, although the weak link is Redmayne, his range narrower with every role. The director is David Yates, whose safe hands also delivered the last four of the eight Harry Potter movies. He too makes the movie better than it had to be. With every corner stuffed with visual curlicues, setpieces are cranked into delirium. You will see a platypus (or thereabouts) slo-mo’d in mid-air amid a shower of stolen diamonds, and wish you had brought ear plugs for the volume of children’s laughter.