Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review – JK Rowling goes steampunk

The latest film from Harry Potter author Rowling’s wizarding world is a wonderfully enjoyable adventure featuring Eddie Redmayne as a “magizoologist” who stumbles into a dark magic adventure in New York

We’ve never needed cheering up more; though on the strictly escapist level, this film is maybe compromised by making one of its characters an obnoxious rich New York chump, a charmless lump, or do I mean grump, reliant on his father’s money and nursing political ambitions. “He’s been mentioned as a future president,” says someone. Surely not...

That entertainment enchanter JK Rowling has come storming back to the world of magic in a shower of supernatural sparks - and created a glorious fantasy-romance adventure, all about the wizards of prohibition-era America and the diffident wizarding Brit who causes chaos in their midst with a bagful of exotic creatures. It’s a lovely performance from Eddie Redmayne who is a pretty fantastic beast himself. There’s a moment when he has to “whisper” an errant animal into submission and his contortions would put Andy Serkis to shame.

Fantastic Beasts cast: ‘A bunch of squirrels together ... that’s pretty fantastic’ – video interview

His Newt is a connoisseur, scientist and scatterbrained magic-beast taxonomist who is not far from the scarf-swathed Dr Who, a specless Potter or beardless Darwin. Redmayne’s distinctively breathy voice even has something of the young Attenborough. With the openness and likability of his screen presence, and the sheer generosity of movie-making energy, he and the cast are giving us an early Christmas treat.

Potter veteran David Yates directs and Rowling has adapted the Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by one Newt Scamander: the first name is short for “Newton” and nothing to do with the witch’s ingredient. This was a fictional work of magical scholarship first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and which Rowling herself wrote out and published in aid of Comic Relief a couple of years later. So who was Scamander? Rowling gives us the answer by converting this static encyclopaedia into a spectacular action-adventure about the origins of his book, set in New York City of the prewar era, 70 or 80 years before Philosopher’s Stone. Does that make it a prequel? Sort of. There are a few hints and allusions, including a namecheck for Dumbledore.

It promises to be the first of a series and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Rowling already has every detail sorted out for the entire saga in architectural detail – and that she got it straight in her mind before writing the first Potter.

Fantastic Beasts is a rich, baroque, intricately detailed entertainment with some breathtaking digital fabrications of prewar New York City. This is Steampunk 2.0, taking its inspirations from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday but the New York she creates also has the dark, traumatised look of Gotham City. The American wizards themselves are subject to an internal debate about their attitude to the civilians; in America a muggle is known as a “no-maj”. It’s a schism that threatens to reach X-Men proportions.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trailer: Eddie Redmayne in Harry Potter spinoff – video

The donnish and unworldly Newt arrives in New York on the hunt for some rare species, and just so happens to be carrying quite a few exotic specimens himself in his battered suitcase with its worryingly insecure clasps. But the city in which he has just arrived has been threatened by some kind of dark poltergeist-whirlwind of dark magic, smashing its way through streets and buildings, which is called an obscurial.

Daft Newt causes calamity almost immediately on arriving by creating a rumpus in a bank with his animals – and a quirk of fate means he forms the unlikeliest of friendships with a no-maj, Jacob Kowlaski (a beguiling performance from Dan Fogler) an ex-soldier stuck in a factory job but nursing big dreams about opening his own bakery. But Newt, our sweet-natured gentleman amateur from across the pond, exasperates the US wizard authorities and in particular their tough operative Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who herself has issues with her superiors. Tina finds herself having to protect Newt and Jacob and brings our two amigos back to the apartment she shares with her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who gets the hots for Jacob. And might there also be a spark between Newt and Tina? Meanwhile, creepy anti-witch activist Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller) appear to have a disquieting connection with top wizard-apparatchik Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

It’s a very Rowling universe, dense with fun, but always taking its own jeopardy very seriously and effortlessly making you do the same. The Beasts movies may actually make clearer Rowling’s under-discussed debt to Roald Dahl. They also show that her universe with its exotic fauna is in the best way, a cousin to that of George Lucas.


There is a strange pleasure of seeing how her magic itself is as potent as ever. The muggle or no-maj world we are seeing is nearly a century old, but the basic language and furniture and procedure of magic is not in any way older or rudimentary. It is the same thing. They have moving pictures on newspapers in the same way as the present day. As ever, magic is a state within a state, a secret in plain sight, and part of the fun is being let in on the secret.

Katherine Waterston is great as Tina and perhaps gives the Rowling universe what it never quite had until now: a really strong young female lead who could tackle the bad guys on equal terms with the man - as well as having the chops for romance.

Rowling and Yates have given us a terrifically good-natured, unpretentious and irresistibly buoyant film. There’s a scene in a speakeasy where someone orders “six shots of giggle-water.” This film felt to me like twelve.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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