A return to the Potterverse was inevitable, but what’s surprising about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is its perpetually gloomy tone. If you thought The Deathly Hallows was dark, this is Harry Potter on depressants.
Newt Scamander (a sleepwalking Eddie Redmayne) is an English magizoologist in Prohibition-era New York, a destination on his global trip to catalogue magical creatures for what will become the titular Hogwarts textbook. When his TARDIS-like suitcase – containing numerous enchanted species – is accidentally switched for one belonging to aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the fantastic beasts are unleashed upon the city.
This is frowned upon by the US Magical Congress, who have strict rules outlawing magical creatures and must protect the wizarding community from exposure (cue memory-wiping Obliviate charms). Together with former Dark Arts investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Kowalski, Newt must track down and recapture the beasts (Pokémon GO, anyone?) and magically undo the damage they’ve done.
Lurking on the sidelines is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a brooding wizard who has a particular interest in a family of Second Salemers (a sect devoted to the persecution of magic users) – specifically their troubled son, Credence (Ezra Miller).
There’s more to it than that – in fact there’s a LOT going on in this film, including subplots involving the escape of a Voldemort-type named Grindelwald, and the threat posed by a destructive amorphous entity known as an Obscurus.
In cinemas: November 17, 2016
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston
Directed by: David Yates
Despite the downbeat mood, period setting and relocation Stateside, this is still recognisably the Potterverse. The same creative team are casting the spells – director David Yates, producers Steve Cloves and David Heyman, and J.K. Rowling penning the screenplay – and have conjured a boldly different and more adult adventure aimed at the grown-ups who devoured the Potter novels as kids. But it’s lacking the magic, fun and loveable characters that made us wild about Harry. Moreover, there’s a sense that Rowling’s universe has succumbed to the brand of comic book filmmaking consuming Hollywood. X-Men-like issues of tolerance and acceptance are raised, and the city-smashing climax is the kind that Marvel has made de rigueur.
Fans will enjoy the menagerie of beasts and the subtle differences between British and American wizardry (a Muggle is called a No-Maj in the States, and wands require a permit), but as the first in a five film franchise, Fantastic Beasts is a strangely inert introduction. You may find yourself feeling Obliviated as you leave the theatre.