Saturday, 26 November 2016

Fantastic beasts – fantastic fun

If you’re considering taking children to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – be aware: “parents may be more concerned to find that a vaguely religious atmosphere surrounds one of the villains of the piece, anti-wizardry crusader Mary Lou Barebone”.

So cautions in its review of the latest film to feature JK Rowling’s expanding magical universe.

Since the character in question harks back to the Protestant fundamentalists of Salem, such a warning from a publication of US Catholic bishops illustrates an increasingly ecumenical attitude toward anything that might be seen as even remotely negative about religion per se.

Mind, since the US has seen copies of Rowling’s Harry Potter books burned by some religious extremists – the sort who even condemn Christian allegorist CS Lewis because he used fantasy and magic in his books – this review was tame stuff indeed.

Aimed at a slightly older audience than the Potter films, it is a delightful film.

Set in a superbly realised 1920s New York, it sees former Hogwarts pupil Newt Scamander arrive in the city with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts – despite such critters being verboten in the US.

So what’s he up to?

Before we find out the answer to that question, his tardis-like suitcase ends up accidentally in the hands of Jacob Kowalski – a factory worker who is desperate to escape his soul-destroying existence in favour of opening his own bakery – and Scamander’s troubles begin.

Matters don’t get any better when Tina Goldstein, a local Ministry Of Magic official, reports him to her superiors for a long list of magical crimes.

And all that’s without mentioning the presence of an unknown, destructive force that is wrecking havoc on the city.

It’s a satisfying complex enough plot with a number of themes running through it, from ecological concerns, to fear and intolerance of the ‘other’ and hints of far-right politics. The worlds of both the magical community and the no-majs (that’s ‘no-magics’ – Rowling’s American version of muggles) are flawed.

Past experiences mean Scamander is not particularly good with people, and this might make the character harder to empathise with, but when he’s with the beasts in his care that one sees him fully flower.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is well scripted and produced by Rowling, and directed by David Yates.

There are thoroughly enjoyable performances from Eddie Redmayne as Scamander, Katherine Waterson as Goldstein, Alison Sudol as her sister Queenie (a lovely take on the blonde bombshell/ditzy moll tropes), Dan Fogler as Kowalski, Colin Farrell as a high-ranking wizard (it’s a very still performance from Farrell and all the better for it), Carmen Ejogo as a the US magical community’s president and Ezra Miller as a young orphan living with the anti-magic fundamentalist mentioned at the top of this review.

It eschews sentimentality but has genuine heart – helped by the effects, which are extraordinary, and give the eponymous beasts real character.

And none of them more so than Niffler, a blue, kleptomaniac platypus-alike attracted to shiny things, who does just about manage to steal the whole show.

Throughly good fun and thank goodness they’re going to make more.

I saw the 3D version – and that was certainly worth it.

* And you can read the Catholic News review here.

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