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'Fantastic Beasts' is full of fantastic treats

Packed with magical menageries and spellbinding subplots, there's almost too much going on in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter prequel.

Here Newt Scamanger is seen with a Thunderbird, a magical creature closely related to the phoenix. One of the four houses in Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the American equivalent of Hogwarts, is named for this creature.
Warner Bros

It seems Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling may have more than one trick up her sleeve.

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" takes us back to the wizarding world of the spell-casting schoolboy, but it's simultaneously more fun and more grown-up than previous Potter adventures.

The fantastic beasts of the title are the passion of one Newt Scamander, a British wizard who arrives in 1920s New York with a suitcase full of weird and wonderful creatures. Several beasts promptly escape, and Newt must catch them before they expose the hidden world of magic to the people of the everyday, non-magical world.

Eddie Redmayne is the scampering Scamander, batting his eyelashes and muttering into his bowtie like the awkward kid brother of Matt Smith's Doctor Who. While it's sometimes tough to hear his whimsical whisperings, Scamander's guileless innocence and infectious love for the animals in his charge make him an endearing focal point for the film.

Those animals are gorgeously designed, colourfully rendered and filled with genuine personality. Your mileage may vary on the realism of the CGI -- it's hard to shake the image of Redmayne and Co. standing on set stroking thin air -- but the beast-based buffoonery provides several monster-sized laughs.

Scamander's quest takes him tumbling from the steaming, teeming streets of prohibition-era New York to the lavishly realised art deco demimonde of the wizarding world, via a delightfully seedy supernatural speakeasy and a magical menagerie in a suitcase.

Along the way our hero bumps into flinty magical detective Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie, and is drawn into all sorts of wizardly political intrigue. The magical authorities scheme to avoid war. A newspaper magnate attempts to manoeuvre his son into office. A group of witch-hunting zealots call for a "Second Salem". And the most dangerous wizard of all is on the loose...

All these subplots are compelling, but there's just so darn many of them. The first film of a proposed five, "Fantastic Beasts" spends a lot of time teeing up characters and storylines that won't pay off for years. That leaves precious little room for this first film's best performances to fulfil their potential -- mainly Samantha Morton, quivering with fear and hatred, and Colin Farrell, silkily seething with hidden evil. The combination of the two could have been explosive, but they're never allowed to come together, short-changing both actors and audience.


Dan Fogler (left), Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston on the hunt for magical beasts.

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

One performance that doesn't leave us short-changed comes from Dan Fogler as Scamander's reluctant sidekick. Fogler provides both big laughs and loads of heart as Kowalski, a no-maj at first bemused and then beguiled by the wizarding world.

Driving much of the story is the wizarding world's determination to remain a secret from the non-magical folk. Potter fans may take this sorcerous segregation for granted, but as a Potter newbie I could have done with having it explained more convincingly.

Especially as Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, is set on having it both ways, serving up very public city-smashing carnage while still professing magical secrecy. Those opposing ideas force the film to tie itself in knots, taking away from some of the very real emotional punch of the climax.

Generally though the film does a good job of explaining itself to people who aren't previously familiar with Potter lore, and it certainly offers more for grown-ups than previous school-based Potter stories. If you're looking, it's rammed with subtext, about intolerance, the environment and much more.

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" opens worldwide Thursday. With charming performances from both human stars and CGI creations, these fantastic beasts are worth finding.