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Fantastic Beasts and the all-too-real pressure of following Harry Potter

Eddie Redmayne may have an Oscar at home, but it is the British actor’s wand that fans really want to see now.

As the star of J.K. Rowling’s new Harry Potter spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the 34-year-old self-proclaimed Harry Potter fan said he had mixed feelings when asked to join the hugely popular magical franchise. 

“It was sort of this mixture of extraordinary wish fulfilment mixed with like … if you’re a fan of something you don’t want to be the one who screws it up,” Redmayne said at the launch of the film’s fan experience in Toronto Tuesday.

“So it was sort of a double-edged sword.”

Same universe, different era

Based on Rowling’s 2001 book of the same name, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rooted in the same mystical universe as the wildly successful Harry Potter franchise, but set 70 years earlier in swinging Prohibition-era New York. 

In it, Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander — a bumbling British wizard who specializes in magical creatures. Harry Potter fans might recognize him as the author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, used to instruct young wizards at Hogwarts.

“He’s not your average staple of a film of this scale,” said Redmayne, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of famed physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

“He is awkward. But he’s also passionate and he is awkward with people, but he’s pretty extraordinary when he is with his creatures. I love that kind of dichotomy.”

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Newt Scamander strokes the head of a beast called a Thunderbird. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Despite being a wizard, Newt is not exempt from mundane hassles, and the conflict in the film centres on the chaos that ensues when Scamander’s suitcase of magical creatures is misplaced and some of the beasts are mistakenly released into the No-Maj (the American term for “muggle”) world.

After directing the final four instalments of the Harry Potter series, David Yates returns to helm this film, which also stars Katherine Waterston as Scamander’s love interest Tina Goldstein, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight and a cameo from Johnny Depp.

Hungry fans, tall order

Hundreds of Potter fans waited in the rain for hours at Toronto’s fan event Tuesday night just to see a glimpse of the cast, as drizzle soaked their witches’ hats and Gryffindor scarves. 

But it’s this show of dedication from Rowling’s fans that has helped conjure up $10 billion US for her fantasy franchise at the global box office, and made the British author one of the world’s richest authors.

And Warner Bros. is clearly expecting to capitalize on the brand’s cachet. Just last month, Rowling — who makes her screenwriting debut with Fantastic Beasts — surprised fans last month when she announced that the spinoff will stretch to five films. 

Despite the optimism, box-office analysts are forecasting an opening take that’s lower than the six other Harry Potter films that opened on a Friday.

“If it does open with $75 million US in North America, it’s going to have to be extra leggy to approximate its cinematic predecessors,” Forbes film analyst Scott Mendelson wrote last month.

Building buzz 

To generate excitement, Warner Bros. is offering a free fan experience for wannabe wizards and witches in Toronto on Wednesday.

Starting at 9 a.m. ET in Yonge-Dundas Square, fans will be able to get up close with Fantastic Beasts costumes and props, and sample the film’s action through virtual reality demonstrations and games. Similar events have been held at various cities around the world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them hits theatres in 3D and IMAX on Nov. 18.

The second Fantastic Beasts is already in pre-production and due in theatres in November 2018.