Zoo-keeping and wizardry have a lot in common actually. Practitioners of each art tend to be passionately committed, full of esoteric information and a little bit odd. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), stumbling into 1920s New York with his fabulous zoo in a suitcase, is an endearing creature, rather like the young David Attenborough as reimagined by P.G. Wodehouse. The hapless American auror with whom he becomes inevitably entangled is a somewhat flat character, but Katherine Waterston does her best with it. Most of the comedy, however, goes to Alison Sudol as her kooky mind-reading flapper sister (she has a great Marilyn smile going) and to Dan Fogler as the innocent Muggle bystander.
The world of American wizardry, 80 years pre-Potter, is as meticulously imagined as we have come to expect from this franchise, and is presented with a generous informality. We are not expected to linger in awe on most of the special effects; rather, cute little dramas of background magic - a fight between paper mice or a casually infinite skyscraper - play out in the corner of the camera's eye.
Thinking back to the special effects of the first Potter films, it's amazing how far the technology's come. The animals and the other effects are magnificent, and presumably will remain completely believable until shown up by whatever the future holds in CGI. It's a visually gorgeous and funny film whose dark bits, in the current political climate, are almost comfortingly containable. And they don't try to do anything too sentimental - no talking animals, no loyal gnome dying in the hero's arms. A few bits of plot bud off into nowhere, laying the groundwork presumably for the planned four sequels (really? Four?), but in general the structure is light, strong and serviceable, with lots of time for exploring new bits of Rowling's quirky and pleasingly logical universe.
The niffler, by the way, a kind of money-crazed platypus, is alone worth the price of admission. I want a pet niffler so badly it hurts.