A might­ily im­pres­sive fi­film

> The first en­try in a planned Fan­tas­tic Beasts fran­chise only serves to whet our ap­petites for its fu­ture se­quels


IN THE wiz­ard­ing world, to be ‘oblivi­ated’ is to for­get what you’ve just wit­nessed. There’s no dan­ger of that hap­pen­ing to au­di­ences who come to see Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The film, di­rected by David Yates and writ­ten by J.K. Rowl­ing, is a spin-off from Rowl­ing’s wildly-pop­u­lar Harry Pot­ter book se­ries that spawned its own film fran­chise that grossed over US$7 bil­lion (RM30.8 bil­lion) world­wide.

Fan­tas­tic Beasts is rous­ing film­mak­ing that com­bines as­ton­ish­ing spe­cial ef­fects with plenty of hu­mour and pathos.

At times, the sto­ry­telling be­comes very dark, verg­ing on film noir, but even at its most fore­bod­ing, the film never loses its charm or its win­ning whim­si­cal­ity.

In­stead of Hog­warts, we’re in New York in 1926 – the era of Board­walk Em­pire, gang­sters and speakeasies – with Bri­tish ec­cen­tric ‘Newt’ Sca­man­der (Ed­die Red­mayne), ex­pelled from Hog­warts some years be­fore, ar­riv­ing in Amer­ica.

The young wiz­ard is car­ry­ing a bat­tered brown suit­case that con­tains within it some of the fan­tas­tic beasts that give the film its name.

Red­mayne gives an in­gra­ti­at­ing per­for­mance as the English­man abroad. His dress sense rekin­dles mem­o­ries of Tom Baker-era Dr Who while his so­lic­i­tous­ness to­wards his an­i­mals at times lends him a David At­ten­bor­ough-like air.

The beasts them­selves are com­pul­sive scene-steal­ers. The most adorable is the ‘Nif­fler’, a platy­pus-like lit­tle gonk ad­dicted to shiny things.

There’s a de­light­ful comic set­piece in which the Nif­fler es­capes the suit­case and ram­pages across a bank, guz­zling coins and sil­ver wher­ever it sees them and leav­ing Sca­man­der trail­ing in its wake.

It’s in the bank we’re first in­tro­duced to Ja­cob Kowal­ski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (Amer­i­can par­lance for ‘Mug­gle’, which is to say those with­out mag­i­cal pow­ers).

Kowal­ski is the hu­man equiv­a­lent of the Nif­fler, a lov­able un­der­dog with a mourn­ful charm about him that en­rap­tures ev­ery­one from Sca­man­der to Quee­nie Gold­stein (Ali­son Su­dol) who can read peo­ple’s minds and knows im­me­di­ately just how sweet na­tured he is.

It’s also at the bank that we are first in­tro­duced to Quee­nie’s sis­ter Tina (Kather­ine Water­ston), who works for the Congress of the United States of Amer­ica, which seems to be the wizards’ an­swer to the FBI.

She wants to ar­rest Sca­man­der, who is sus­pected of smug­gling dan­ger­ous an­i­mals into the coun­try, partly to re­deem herself due to a re­cent de­mo­tion.

As in the Harry Pot­ter se­ries of films, the film­mak­ers have filled the cast with re­doubtable char­ac­ter ac­tors.

These in­clude Ron Perl­man as a gob­lin-like gang­ster who runs an un­der­ground bar, Sa­man­tha Mor­ton as a stern, Quaker-like ma­tri­arch who wants the wizards de­stroyed, and Ezra Miller as a trou­bled teen who turns out to have hid­den depths.

Johnny Depp also makes a brief but ef­fec­tive ap­pear­ance – sug­gest­ing we’ll see more of him in sub­se­quent episodes.

At times, the sto­ry­telling is a lit­tle con­fus­ing. Sca­man­der keeps on dis­ap­pear­ing into his suit­case and then turn­ing up some­where al­to­gether new.

The mo­tives of the char­ac­ters aren’t es­pe­cially well ex­plained ei­ther. It is not ini­tially clear why Tina has been de­moted, or what in­fer­nal plans the sleek but un­trust­wor­thy Per­ci­val Graves (Colin Far­rell) is hatch­ing.

The be­hav­iour of the No-Maj politi­cians is like­wise hard to fathom. There are ref­er­ences to some in­ef­fa­ble dark force that chil­dren can har­ness; that will burst out in an orgy of vi­o­lence and then van­ish again.

Rather than try­ing to un­pick the nar­ra­tive, it’s best just to bask in the won­drous per­for­mances and the ex­tra­or­di­nary crafts­man­ship.

The recre­ation of 20s New York here is metic­u­lously de­tailed. Ex­treme care has been paid to ev­ery­thing from the cos­tumes to the jazz-era mu­sic.

The film is a con­stant dance be­tween light and dark, be­tween play­ful knock­about com­edy and havoc and de­struc­tion.

Five years on from Harry Pot­ter’s last screen out­ing, Fan­tas­tic Beasts could eas­ily have seemed de­riv­a­tive or an­ti­cli­mac­tic.

In­stead, it’s a thor­oughly in­vig­o­rat­ing af­fair which only whets our ap­petites for its se­quels. – The In­de­pen­dent

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