NEW YORK/LONDON • British author J.K. Rowling has reason to celebrate ahead of the release of her Harry Potter spin-off film, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, this weekend.
Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, a sequel to her books, won Best Play at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in London on Sunday. The accolade came as Fantastic Beasts met with early reviews that asked if the film is too dark for a family audience and if the story can sustain four more movies.
At Sunday's awards, Rowling, 51, sent a message praising Cursed Child's co-writers John Tiffany and Jack Thorne for "crafting the bare bones of a story into something very special".
Celebrities, including Elizabeth Hurley, Tom Hiddleston, James McAvoy and Ian McKellen, attended the ceremony in London, where British naturalist David Attenborough, 90, was honoured for more than 60 years of wildlife programming with a prize presented by Prince William.
Ralph Fiennes took Best Actor for his performance in The Master Builder and Richard III, Billie Piper won Best Actress for her role in Yerma and Glenn Close won for Best Musical Performance in her West End debut in Sunset Boulevard.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros' Fantastic Beasts got mixed reviews. "That entertainment enchanter J.K. Rowling has come storming back to the world of magic in a shower of supernatural sparks and created a glorious fantasy-romance adventure," wrote Peter Bradshaw in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
The film takes place 70 years before the first Potter books and features a cast of new characters with magical powers. Set in 1926, it centres on "magizoologist" Newt Scamander who arrives in New York with a case full of strange creatures that escape.
It marks Rowling's debut as a screenplay writer and is the first of five movies based on the Scamander character that seek to build on a wizarding franchise that has made US$7 billion (S$9.9 billion) at the global box office.
The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore said it would appeal both to Potter fans and newcomers, praising its invention and special effects.
"This world invites us in as effectively as the best of the Potter episodes," he wrote. But he said casual audiences "may be less convinced that this spin-off demands the five feature-length instalments Warner and Rowling have planned".
Variety noted the film's themes of intolerance and xenophobia beneath the wands and the cute beasts. "Just when you thought the world of Harry Potter couldn't get any darker, along comes a bleak-as-soot spin-off that makes the earlier series look like kids' stuff," wrote Peter DeBruge.
But Britain's Telegraph welcomed the bleak undercurrent, saying the film's vision of Depression-era America "caught in the jaws of fear and paranoia has the stony-grim ring of the here and now".
Others were less impressed. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty called the film "oddly lifeless". "If it plans on replicating Potter's success, its sequels will have to step it up," he added.
Several critics found the plot and its multiple characters overstuffed, with The Wrap's Jason Solomons writing that "despite immaculate design and splashes of wonder, a touch of magic is missing in this Harry Potter prequel".