Sunday, 27 November 2016

"I wonder... what makes Albus Dumbledore so fond of you, Mr Scamander?"

It has been almost five-and-a-half years since the eight film Harry Potter franchise handed in its wand. So the sight of the Warner Bros logo accompanied by a sampling of John Williams' iconic score induces tingles of, well, magic.

You have to credit J.K. Rowling. Rather than create new big screen adventures for the generation defining boy wizard, she and the Warner Bros team have opened a completely different wizarding saga – a new era, new country and entirely new characters (at least so far). That is certainly a lot of world building to do and so the film shares some of the same dense exposition of the first two Harry Potter films. But thanks to Rowling's capacity for invention and some utterly glorious new beasts like kleptomaniac platypus the Niffler, the gamble largely succeeds – and, as you would expect, it looks spectacular doing it.

With the visual panache comes a whole lot of plot. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Hogwarts black sheep and author of the titular textbook that Harry studies in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (2001), arrives in New York on the home leg of a global excursion dedicated to cataloguing exotic creatures.

Such beasts are banned in New York, where the magical community is presently keeping a low profile, and for good reason – dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has disappeared after wreaking havoc in Europe, a mysterious force is attacking New York and No-Maj (American English for Muggle) bigotry is being zealously stoked by the fanatical Second Salemers led by the venom spitting Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).

Unfortunately for Newt, some funny business involving likeable Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and a suitcase switcheroo leads to some of Newt's creatures springing the clasps on their Tardis like home and hightailing it into a city already on red alert.

This great escape draws the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former 'Auror' (Dark-wizard catcher) who is now out of favour at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), and she in turn reports it to the shifty Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to curry favour.

MACUSA's stern boss, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), is holding international summits about Grindelwald with characters who will probably be more important down the line. Meanwhile Graves is investigating a destructive force that seems to attack the city at random, threatening to reveal the wizarding world to the rest of us.

What follows is a succession of chases, slapstick set-pieces and reveals, be it the shapes and sizes of the various beasts on show or plot turns instigated by characters' hidden motives and desires – many a heart here turns out to be a chamber of secrets.

Scripted by J.K. Rowling herself and directed by David Yates, the man behind the later, darker Potter films, this is squarely aimed at the kids who grew up reading and watching Harry Potter – which is to say, adults. Their are potent themes here, including prejudice, intolerance and repression, presented with enough force to hit viewers straight between the eyes and leave a (zigzag) scar in these dark days of Brexit and Donald Trump.

The Second Salemers, meanwhile, are as unnerving as anything you will find in cult movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) or The Sacrament (2013). Come the closing credits, it is Mary Lou's burning eyes and the cowering, whipped body of her tormented acolyte, Credence (Ezra Miller), that are the takeaways, not the digital effects heavy destructive finale.

But the film has some structural problems. Rowling's varied beasts are fun, and brilliantly realised by the effects team, but they are ultimately a sideshow, and the numerous action sequences to capture each one can drag. The sight of Academy Award® winner Redmayne performing a mating dance for a giant hippo creature will stay with you, but it is not what we need to see when there are truly dastardly dealings afoot. It is only in the last act, when Newt focuses on the real threats and discovers the mystery to solve, that the film soars, like Newt's glorious thunderbird Frank, into the heavens.

Overall, what has emerged from Rowling's sorting hat of ideas isn't quite as fantastic as we all hoped. But it is an exceedingly solid franchise opener that builds a new world with enough bridges to the established Potterverse to keep the devoted happy.

Redmayne too delivers a deceivingly nuanced and refined performance as the socially awkward Newt. As chronically bad with people as he is amiable and well-meaning, our reluctant hero is an eccentric professorial type who peers up from under a shock of hair and avoids eye contact.

The second instalment, we are promised, will travel to the UK and Paris, with Grindelwald coming to the fore and a young Dumbledore stepping into play. We can also expect, at some point, to visit America's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Ilvermorny, while the spectre of World War II looms large.

And to think, people initially pondered how Harry's slim textbook, which Rowling actually published in 2001 under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, could be stretched into one feature, let alone five. Turns out it is like Newt's very suitcase – bewitched with an Extension Charm, and promising extraordinary sights. This first instalment showcases just enough of them to make you sign up for the full expedition.

Big, bold and teeming with imagination, while it doesn't quite enchant like the best of the Harry Potter series, there are enough thrills and genuine chills to satisfy.

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