Is Fantastic Beasts a stretch too far for JK Rowling's imagination?

The new Harry Potter spin-off barely has enough material for one film, let alone the five its creator has promised.

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In 2001 JK Rowling published the Harry Potter spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to raise money for Comic Relief. It is not altogether clear from the big-screen version, which extrapolates a threadbare story from what was originally a slim encyclopaedia of exotic creatures, that there is enough material for one film, let alone the five that Rowling has either promised or threatened, depending on your point of view.

Fantastic beasts are much in abundance in mid-1920s New York, where the action takes place. The trick, it would seem, is to avoid them. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has a fair few of the blighters in the bulging suitcase that he manages to sneak through customs. This he does by flicking the “Muggle-Worthy” switch on the handle, so that the immigration official sees only neatly pressed clothes and an alarm clock packed inside, rather than the menagerie of drooling, twitching, rubbery stowaways that is really there.

These often escape, however, and Newt at once has his hands full trying to catch the Niffler, a money-hungry mole with the bill of a platypus, which is running amok in an art-deco bank. This episode would be a charming diversion, were it not for the gradual realisation that the main body of the film is to be devoted to near-identical pursuits of other creatures, including a lumbering triceratops illuminated from within like a jack-o’-lantern and a hairy-faced, owl-eyed sloth that resembles Rick Wakeman at his most prog. For all the sophisticated special effects, it’s rather like being trapped in a two-hour game of Pokémon Go.

What’s more, none of the monsters is quite as odd as Newt himself, whom Redmayne has chosen to play in an irksomely mannered style, eyes darting bashfully and mouth semi-agape in a love-me pout. He seems stuck between Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. “I’m annoying,” he says at one point. You said it, pal.

Newt drags along on his adventures a Non-Maj (that’s to say, Muggle) baker named Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler), a fellow wizard called Tina (Katherine Waterston), and her mind-reading flatmate Queenie (Alison Sudol). As shot after shot shows these actors trying to find new gradations of awe, one recalls the words of Maggie Smith about her own Harry Potter experience: “Alan Rickman and I ran out of reaction shots. We couldn’t think what sort of faces we would pull. I remember him saying he’d got up to about three hundred and sixty something and there weren’t any left.” They managed eight films. The stars of Fantastic Beasts seem to have exhausted their repertoire of expressions after one.

All the interesting dramatic conflict is shunted away in a subplot about a fire-and-brimstone anti-magic preacher, Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and her put-upon adoptive son, Credence (Ezra Miller), who is being secretly pressured by a wizard, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), into revealing the source of a terrible disturbance happening in New York. The cause is the Obscurus, a malevolent grey storm that resembles a tornado of bath scum. This is the physical manifestation of wizards forced to hide their gift in a society intolerant of magic: literally the return of the repressed. The X-Men films have set the standard in blockbusters for analogies about outsiders and oppression, but the scenes with Credence, who skulks around in dark alleys, waiting for Percival to stroke his face and tell him he’s “a very special young man”, offer their own valuable addition to the cinema of the unjustly demonised.

The intensity and depth of the scenes featuring the Barebones is missing from the rest of the film, where an ingratiatingly ethereal tone predominates. Rowling (with her first produced screenplay) and David Yates (who directed the past four Harry Potter pictures) have embellished the picture with playful touches, from origami rodents to self-typing typewriters. In Tina and Queenie’s apartment, plates float to the table and a strudel bakes itself in mid-air. In a corner of the room, a rolling pin moves methodically back and forth over the same piece of pastry. It’s almost as if it were trying to tell us that Rowling has spread her imagination too thin this time.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world