The first of five new films in the Harry Potter universe combines enthralling visuals with surprising emotional heft
Since this utterly delightful spin-off was announced in 2013, it’s been anticipated as a grown-up answer to Harry Potter. In its unflinching approach to political and personal tragedy, grown-up it is – but in some ways J.K. Rowling’s script will also be more enchanting to your inner kid than the Potter films ever were. It’s almost as if its distributors, Warner Bros, knew the film would find a world in dire need of escapism when they chose its release date of mid-November 2016.
Beasts’ setting is a beautifully realised 1920s New York City – towering skyscrapers, murky speakeasies, flourishing small businesses. We follow the travails of the newly arrived and charmingly odd British magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) after his magically expanded (and illegal) briefcase of creatures comes ajar, seeing him blamed for what appears to be dark magical terrorism across the city.
This is where the weightier themes of the film come in. The exposure of the wizarding community to US Muggles – here known as ‘No-Majs’ – is anathema to the Magical Congress of the USA. The divide runs so deep that wizards are discouraged from even fraternising with No-Majs, let alone marrying them. Meanwhile, following the mysterious attacks, a No-Maj group knows something fishy is up and demands a witch-hunt, somewhat akin to the Westboro Baptist Church or champions of conversion therapy in their dogged pursuit of intolerance. On top of all that, the menacing Chief Auror Graves (Colin Farrell) is after Scamander.
All of this gloom is counterbalanced by the buoyant central quartet: soft-spoken Scamander, his cheery No-Maj sidekick Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), their steely host Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Potter fans will relish new phenomena like Queenie’s effortless Legilimency, the magical pick-me-up Gigglewater, or even the taboo Obscurus – but many of the creatures from Rowling’s eponymous ‘textbook’ are also brought to wonderful life and allow for moments of real silliness between Scamander and Kowalski. The Niffler is among the best – it’s a platypus-shaped creature with magpie tendencies – but there’s also plenty of comedy to the Erumpent, an explosive rhino that Scamander is forced to win over with a ridiculous mating ritual. Like the film itself, Redmayne never flinches.