As no less a storied filmmaker than George Lucas demonstrated with what became the first three instalments of the Star Wars franchise, it is one thing to create a whole new world, or in his case, a galaxy; quite another to keep it fresh and interesting.
So you might well wonder if J. K. Rowling, creator and sustainer of the Harry Potter universe, supremely talented storyteller though she is, can launch a whole new series of stories set in her beguiling, magical world and bring the same, ahem, magic that so enchanted so many fans over eight films.
The answer in Fantastic Films and Where to Find Them is that not only is she more than able to do this, but that the film hums with its own sense of magical purpose, taking us to another continent and time.
Set in 1926, in the Roaring Twenties when all the loss and destruction of World War One had given way to boundless optimism and a sense of renewal and growth, Fantastic Beasts takes place in a rapidly modernising New York, brimming with technological advances such as electric light, the widespread adaption of the automobile and a temporary putting aside, not that anyone knew it at the time, of humanity’s enmity for the Other.
Although as the many wary witches and wizards who make up the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), overseen by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) are all too aware, a respite in No-Maj (no magic; the US term for “muggles”) enmity for each other does not necessarily translate to inclusion and acceptance of their magical counterparts.
This lack of perceived tolerance is evidenced by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a strident anti-Maj campaigner who heads up the New Salem Philanthropic Society who holds public rallies decrying the threat posed, so she says from the wizards and witches in New Yorkers’ midst.
It’s into this both hopeful and highly-charged environment that Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizarding graduate of Hogwarts enters, with a bagful of otherworldly creatures who have been hounded to near-extinction by humanity and by the fundamentalist attitudes of groups like MACUSA who have banned the possession of creatures such as the Niffler, with its penchant for shiny, metallic items, Bowtruckles, leafy small humanoids and giant antelope-like Graphorns.
A goofy, nerdy but quite determined young man, Newt comes into contact with two sisters, Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol respectively), the first of whom is a onetime Auror or investigator for MACUSA who erroneously believes that the newly-arrived British wizard is up to no good.
And yes, Newt has, through no fault of his own – an encounter with an eager young baker-to-be Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) sees some of the suitcased magical creatures go on the run – fallen foul of MACUSA’s no magical animals edicts.
But of course Tina’s initial eagerness to restore her once-vaulted place as an Auror, which she forfeited when she showed kindness to a No-Maj called Credence, the ill-treated son of Mary Lou Barebone who harbours a dark secret, creates no end of problem for Newt, Jacob, who encounters an neverending world of wonder he never knew existed, and eventually for the Goldstein sisters themselves.
Naturally, and this gives away Fantastic Beasts role as the set-up film for a five-movie franchise which is rumoured to end with an epic battle between Dumbledore and the evil wizard Grindelwald (who begins to make his presence known), the precursor to Voldemort, there is more going on than meets the eye, undercurrents which turn Newt’s simple attempt to repatriate a magical creature to its natural home in Arizona into an unveiling of a grand and dark conspiracy that quickly leaps beyond the child-like wonder of the first Harry Potter films.
David Yates, working to a nicely-pitched script by J. K. Rowling which only occasionally falls prey to Marvel Syndrome which is the need for massive battles for the fabric of a city and the soul of its inhabitants, invests Fantastic Beasts with an expansive otherworldly feel which effortlessly establish the United States as like, and yet nothing like, its British counterpart with which we are now inordinately familiar.
A film which more than ably stands on its own two narrative feet, Fantastic Beasts brilliantly and yes damn near magically (it’s impossible not to use that word such is the wonder unleashed in this delightful but dark film) extends Rowling’s universe to encompass everything from a suitcase with Whovian properties – the suitcase in which Newt carries his creatures, is a massive, multi-environment unto itself realised by impressively realistic, boundlessly imaginative CGI effects – to a building full to the brim with all the magic and supernatural elements you could ask for.
Immersive though this world is what gives it a beating heart and firmly roots it in a humanity which informs all its storytelling, is the attention of detail paid to the characters themselves, most particularly the foursome at the centre of the story – Newt and Tina, and Queenie and Jacob who, it will surprise no one form romantic as well as collegiate bonds with each other over this course of this action-packed but heartfelt story – all of whom come to matter to anyone watching a great deal.
Thus even as the action ramps up at times to a soaring spectacle which threatens to undo the truce between the No-Maj and supernatural realms, the narrative stays firmly rooted in very real, very human concerns, a triumph given the simmering potential for everything to get lost in bigger than Ben Hur storytelling.
But while Fantastic Beasts use its extensive world-building well, augmenting it with powerfully-emotive music by James Newton Howard, providing us with a timely message about intolerance and the dangers of harnessing powers well beyond your control, it never loses sight of the human stories at its core, finishing with some quite touching scenes which beautifully demonstrate that the gulf between wizards & witches, and No-Maj may not be so great after all.
As long as Rowling keeps her eye on the storytelling ball, and we have no reason to believe she won’t given the success of the Harry Potter franchise to date, Fantastic Beasts has the very real potential to grow into its own immeasurably great franchise, one capable of both dazzling with magical spectacle and the authenticity of the human experience, surely the cornerstone of every longlasting and much-loved storytelling endeavour.