Question: how do you turn a rather slim World Book Day volume into not one, not three, but five big movies? Answer. Ring up JK Rowling. She has elaborated extensively on said slim volume to create a wizarding tale set, not in the familiar confines of Hogwarts, but in New York city in the year 1926. The more cynical amongst us will be tempted to dub this with an alternative title – Newt Scamander and the Cow of Cash – but to give the film its due, it is undoubtedly a serious attempt to step away from the path already trodden and for that, at least, it should be applauded; and the attention to detail that’s been applied to the creation of the wizard world is truly impressive. But the ranks of parents accompanied by bewildered looking youngsters as the credits rolled on the afternoon show we attended, spoke volumes. Despite that 12A certificate, this is not a film for the very young, simply because there’s no child protagonist here to fully engage their attention.
Instead we have English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York city carrying a magical case of strange creatures with him and it’s no great surprise when some of those creatures escape and start running amok in the (beautifully recreated) city. These range from tiny, cute and obsessed with stealing shiny things, to large, rhinoceros-like and ready to mate with something (seriously – you need to prepare yourself for Scamander’s mating dance). Newt soon falls under the watchful gaze of ministry of magic jobs worth, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and things take a more complicated turn when ‘No-Maj’ (the American term for a Muggle) Kowalski (Dan Fogle) inadvertently ends up with the wrong suitcase. Much hilarity ensues, and many landmark buildings are spectacularly destroyed…
Which is all well and good, but it has to be said that something in this mix doesn’t quite work. The resulting film is neither fish nor fowl. Surely, the parade of beautifully rendered CGI creatures are aimed at children, while the human characters behave in a manner that’s more appropriate for their parents – but because neither aspect fully coheres with the other, both sides of the audience are somehow left wanting. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the delightful Queenie (Alison Sudal, channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe) and Fogle’s winning turn as the poor schlep who finds himself suddenly immersed in a world of wizarding is good too. Redmayne rather overdoes it as Scamander – sure, he’s meant to be shy and introverted but he gurns his way through this first film and I can only hope that he’ll dial it down a bit for episodes 2,3,4 and 5. Whether I’ll be watching any of them is another matter.The major villain here is Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful wizard with a hidden agenda, but he really doesn’t have all that much to do and seems a poor exchange for the villainous Voldemort.
A lot of money and huge amounts of technical skill has clearly been lavished on this project – and it’s by no means the worst thing you’ll see this year – but for me at least, it fails to live up to its famous progenitor. And I can’t help thinking – how are they going to string this out for another four movies?