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Film review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Does this family-friendly blockbuster teach a stealthy lesson about antisemitism?

    Sequels are generally less highly-regarded than their predecessors. Any wiseacre can find you a few films with ‘2’ in the title that improve on the original, but it’s even easier to find a whole lot more movies that don’t.

    Fantastic Beasts isn’t a movie sequel per se. It’s the start of a new franchise that is effectively the follow-up to the Harry Potter series. In fact, by virtue of its late 1920s setting, it’s a prequel to the whole thing.

    The question many moviegoers might ask is: ‘does Fantastic Beasts require a working knowledge of JK Rowling’s wizarding universes?’

    The answer to that is “no.” I’ve managed to get to the end of 2016 without ever having read one of the books or seen more than a few minutes of the films. There are occasional little references to characters we’re clearly expected to know but this is a film that happily careens along on its own merits.

    Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a sort of David Attenborough of the wizarding world who collects endangered species (the fantastic beasts of the title) and tries to keep them safe from unscrupulous hunters. Redmayne is the classic diffident Englishman here; all Hugh Grant understatement and coy Princess Diana looks from under his auburn hair.

    Arriving in New York he falls in with the Goldstein sisters – Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol.) Porpentina’s the serious, ambitious one who works for a sort of magical secret service while Queenie’s the fun, flirtatious sister. Rounding out the main cast is Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski.

    Jacob’s a likeable bumbler who dreams of opening a baker’s shop but somehow becomes mixed up in Scamander’s quest for lost magical beasts in a beautifully-visualised ‘30s New York

    Hijinks ensue, and Fantastic Beasts is a perfectly likeable popcorn flick to which you could take teens and tweens confident that they’d have a splendid couple of hours.

    There’s a kleptomaniac platypus, a Men-in-Black style secret base and all manner of physical comedy and CGI wonderment. It’s great.

    But there’s also an interesting subcurrent to the script. The New York magical community are explicitly an oppressed minority who live in constant fear of a pogrom from their “No-Maj” compatriots.

    We get a clear sight of this in the form of a pseudo-religious anti-magical pressure group - led by Samantha Morton - who are trying to drum-up support for a quite literal witch hunt.

    Drawing parallels between these dark threads in the narrative and real-life dark threads from the early 1930s is well-nigh irresistible.

    A family-friendly blockbuster that teaches a stealthy lesson about the evils of antisemitism? How could you not buy a ticket?

    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be on general release from November 18th

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