Marvelous Cash Cows and How to Milk Them.
As just about everyone in the whole muggle world (or nomaj world if you’re reading this in the States) knows, FBaWtFT is the first of a five film spin-off series from the Potter franchise, still under the careful stewardship of David Yates. (And if the other films in the series were ‘amber-lit’ rather than ‘green-lit’, their production now seems assured after the US opening weekend alone has brought in nearly half its $180 million budget).
Set in New York in the mid-1920’s Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”; “The Theory of Everything”) plays Newt Scamander, a Brit newly arrived with a case full of trouble. Newt is a bit like an amiable and ditsy David Attenborough, with a strong desire to protect and establish breeding colonies for endangered species. It’s fair to say though that these are creatures that even Sir David hasn’t yet filmed.
Within the battered old case (a forerunner of Hermione Grainger’s bag, which was probably borrowed from Mary Poppins), Newt stores a menagerie of strange and wonderful creatures which – after a bump and a mishap – get released by wannabe baker and muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, “Fanboys”). Newt has the job of rounding up the strays with the help of Tina (Katherine Waterston, “Steve Jobs”), an out of favour member of the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA). Unfortunately this couldn’t be happening at a worse time: something else – nothing to do with Newt – is wreaking havoc across New York and MACUSA is on red alert suspecting the involvement of a dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, following attacks in Europe. And keeping the secrets of wizardry from the NoMaj population is getting increasingly difficult, especially with the efforts of the “Second Salemers” movement run by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton, “Minority Report”) and her strange adopted family.
This film will obviously be an enormous success given the love of all things Potter, but is it any good? Well, its different for sure, being set many years before Potter and only having glancing references to Hogwarts and related matters. And that gives the opportunity to start afresh with new characters and new relationships which is refreshing. It’s all perfectly amiable, with Redmayne’s slightly embarrassed lack of eye-contact* in delivering his lines being charming. [* Is this perhaps the second leading character in a month that is high on the autistic spectrum?] . Redmayne does have a tendency to mutter though and (particularly with the sound system for the cinema I saw this in) this made a lot of his dialogue inaudible. Waterston makes for a charming if somewhat insipid heroine, not being given an awful lot to do in the action sequences.
Kowalski adds a humorous balance to the mixture, but the star comic turns are some of the creatures, especially the Niffler… a light fingered magpie-like creature with a voluminous pouch and expensive tastes!
In the ‘I-almost-know-who-that-is-behind-the-make-up-but-can’t-quite-place-him’ role is Ron “Hellboy” Perlman as the untrustworthy gangster Gnarlack. And in another cameo – and probably paid an enormous fee for his 30 seconds of screen time – is Johnny Depp, which was money well-wasted since, like most of his roles, he was completely unrecognisable (I only knew it was him from checking imdb afterwards).
At the pen is J.K.Rowling herself, and there are a few corking lines in the script. However, in common with many of her novels, there is also a tendency for extrapolation and padding. Some judicial editing could have knocked at least twenty minutes off its child-unfriendly 133 minute running time and made a better film. Undoubtedly the first half of the film is better than the second, with the finale slouching into – as my other half put it – “superhero” territory with much CGI destruction and smashing of glass. What is perhaps most surprising about the story is that there are few obvious set-ups for the next film.
Quirky and original, its a film that will no-doubt please Potter fans and it stands as a decent fantasy film in its own right. It’s difficult though to get the smell of big business and exploitation out of your nostrils: no doubt stockings throughout the world will be full of plush toy nifflers this Christmas.
Fad Rating: FFFf.