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Harry Potter spin-off requires patience
WHO would have thought that a faux-textbook at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - required reading for Harry Potter and fellow wiz-kids at Care of Magical Creatures classes and mentioned only in passing in the first Harry Potter novel - would be the basis for a multi-movie spin-off? JK Rowling did, of course.
That's why the first instalment of a companion series set in the Potter universe, many decades before Harry is even born, is now reality. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the same, only different - if you know what I mean.
Not content to let sleeping wizards lie, the woman responsible for unleashing Pottermania on the planet has dreamed up an entirely new cast of creatures and characters, concocted a narrative using her over-active imagination - and given Pot(ter)heads a reason to live.
For continuity's sake, and to make sure the rest of us don't miss the point, she also wrote the screenplay (her first) for Fantastic Beasts and roped in director David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films. Familiarity breeds contentment, as they say.
The story takes place in 1926 and is set in New York City, where Hogwarts grad Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just arrived, carrying a suitcase stuffed with magical creatures acquired during a globetrotting research-and-rescue mission. Several of them are endangered species and Newt - a "magizoologist" in the Ministry of Magic - is focused on releasing them back in their native habitats.
Prohibition-era New York has its share of homegrown wizards but the Muggle population (known in the United States as No-majs) is wary, even intolerant, of those who are not their own kind (a not-too-subtle dig at certain segments of modern-day America).
The wizard community has its own policing unit, which has outlawed beasts from the country. Newt is seen skulking around and acting suspiciously by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a wizard ex-investigator who has been relegated to a pen-pushing role. She decides that turning him into her powerful former boss Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) will redeem her.
Meanwhile, one or two cuddly occupants escape Newt's suitcase. While trying to round them up, he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a friendly native and would-be bakery owner whose suitcase is inadvertently switched with Newt's, setting off a chain of events that leads to the brink of disaster.
"I don't think I'm dreaming - I ain't got the brains to make that up," says Jacob after a cute but crafty duck-billed Niffler causes grief by hoovering up large quantities of coins and expensive jewellery. Viewers are introduced to a steady procession of creatures great and small - a "talk-to-the-animals" sequence gives the filmmakers the chance to make digital magic.
The special effects (including impressive use of 3-D) keeps viewers engaged more than the narrative, which is patchy in parts and loaded with way too much subtext. It almost seems like some scenes were inserted at random. The assorted supporting characters include Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leader of a secretive sect, and her troubled adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller); a media mogul (Jon Voight) intent on pushing his eldest son into political office and Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina's slightly scatty younger sister who is sweet on Jacob.
Dark forces are represented by an amorphous being called an Obscurial, which sweeps through the city doing very bad things to people and property. The wizard cops are out to destroy it, but Newt just wants to save it.
Fantastic Beasts won't need much rescuing at the box office, though: all that's required is a little patience - the next instalment comes out in two years' time.