Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York to pursue his work promoting the care of magical creatures, but finds himself drawn into a conflict between the wizarding world and witch-hunters led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton).
You have to credit J.K. Rowling. Rather than spin off 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’s a lot of world-building to do, so this film has a bit of the same dense exposition of the first two 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’d expect, it looks dazzling doing it.
The visual panache comes with a whole lot of plot. Hogwarts black sheep Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is fresh off the boat when he meets ‘No-Maj’/Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) outside a New York bank. They’re carrying similar suitcases — Jacob’s contains pastries while Newt’s is brimming with mystical creatures he is studying — so you can spot o ne thing that might go wrong immediately. At the same time, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) spots Newt and suspects him to be a threat to magical safety. That also, potentially, makes Newt her way back into the good graces of MACUSA, the local magical government agency and her employer.
Redmayne works hard as Newt, who’s as chronically bad with people as he is amiable and well-meaning, a dotty professorial type who peers up from under a shock of hair and avoids eye-contact. But he’s so disconnected and withdrawn that he barely shifts facial expression from friendly blankness for the first half hour, when we really need him to guide us around. Instead, his new buddy Jacob is clearly meant as our way into the magical world and its comic relief, but his flirtations with Alison Sudol, as Porpentina’s sister Queenie, largely suck screen-time really needed for Newt and Tina, the ostensible leads. It’s almost the end of the film before they get to connect — a shame, because there is obvious fellow-feeling there and a shared sense of purpose.
It’s only in the last act that the film soars, like Newt’s glorious thunderbird Frank, into the heavens.
While the leads chase Newt’s fugitive creatures and flout the laws against fraternising with Muggles (or ‘No-Majs’), a shadowy prologue has warned of dark magician Gellert Grindelwald. 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 (hello, Gemma Chan!). Meanwhile Picquery’s head agent, Graves (Colin Farrell) — compelling but slightly shifty — investigates a destructive force that seems to attack the city at random, threatening to reveal the wizarding world to the rest of us. Many of these characters around the edges of the story stand out better than the leads. That’s particularly true of Samantha Morton, spitting venom as witch-hater Mary Lou Barebone, and Ezra Miller, who’s bruisingly excellent as her sorely abused eldest boy.
But the film has some structural problems. Rowling’s varied beasts are fun, and brilliantly realised by the effects team, but they’re ultimately a sideshow, and the numerous action sequences to capture each one can drag. The sight of Oscar winner Redmayne performing a mating dance for a giant hippo-monster will stay with you, but it’s not what we need to see when there are truly dastardly dealings afoot across town. It’s 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.
Big, bold and teeming with imagination, it is so busy world-building that it occasionally forgets to have fun. But with this heavy lifting done, there’s every reason to hope for an even more magical adventure next time.