Featured post: Top magical creatures and their powers

A huge part of the appeal of Harry Potter is all the magical creatures that are brought to life on the big screen. While some are mischievous, others are helpful and the rest are just downright frightening – and you can learn about them all as you explore the creature effects at Warner Bros Studio Tours.

It would be impossible to name every magical creature in the non-Muggle world, but here are some of the best:

Buckbeak

The undisputed gentleman of the magical-creatures world, Buckbeak is a hippogriff, so he is half eagle and half horse. A stickler for manners, this potentially dangerous breed can be placated by a simple bow, returning the favour if your gesture of respect is believed and accepted. 

In terms of powers, Buckbeak can’t do any magic, as such, but he can fly, which comes in very handy, as both Harry Potter and Sirius Black can tell you.

Aragog

Scary to look at but one of Hagrid’s favourite animal friends, Aragog is an acromantula – or a blooming big spider, to you and me. He lives in the Forbidden Forest with his enormous family and lies in wait for potential food to walk into his lair, with humans being a particularly enjoyable snack.

Acromantula venom is exceptionally rare and dangerous, so those who can collect some could find themselves very rich if they sell it. Just ask Professor Slughorn.

Basilisk

The monster of Slytherin, the basilisk is a huge serpent with enormous venomous fangs, armour-like scales and a fierce loyalty to those who can speak Parseltongue. Basilisks are also as magical as they are terrifying, which is why they tend to get locked away in hidden places, such as the Chamber of Secrets.

Powers-wise, basilisks are able to deflect spells with their tough scales and can scare people to death, literally, with their stare. The only way to survive eye contact with a basilisk is to not make it directly.

Boggart

Boggarts might sound like fairly harmless magical creatures, what with them not having a form of their own, but they actually are one of the scariest. Nobody knows what they look like when they are alone, but when confronted by a person, they really show their true power.

A boggart’s power is that it can see into the mind of the person looking at it and transform into their greatest fear. Pretty horrifying stuff, but humiliating the boggart and laughing at it will make it retreat.

Centaur

A beautiful creature that should never be considered a half-breed, the centaur is an extra-special resident of the Forbidden Forest. Suspicious of humans and hesitant to get involved with them, these striking, intelligent creatures possess a number of powers.

Healing, divination and astronomy are particular strengths of centaurs, but you’ll be lucky to get them to help you.

Dragon

From the Common Welsh Green to Norwegian Ridgebacks, all dragons are magical in their own right and are particularly untamed. Large, scary to look at and easy to anger, these amazing creatures featured heavily in the Triwizard Tournament, much to Harry’s unhappiness.

Able to fly and breath fire, dragons are not to be meddled with. They can come to respect certain humans, such as Charlie Weasley, but humans generally don’t emerge from an encounter without a scar or two.

Unicorn

As beautiful as they are magical, unicorns live in the Forbidden Forest, away from human interference. It’s worth noting that they are relatively tame, for the right people, however, so if you’re pure of heart, they might be willing to trot over for a petting session. 

Unicorns are exceptional in that every part of them is magical. Their hair is used for wand cores, their horns are used in potions and their blood is said to give long-lasting life to anyone who drinks it. But beware! As soon as unicorn blood touches your lips, you will be cursed.

Thestral

Winged horses with skeletal bodies and faces, thestrals would probably scare people, if more could see them. Their power is very specific and tells of great sadness.

Sweet thestrals can remain invisible to everyone, bar those that have witnessed death first hand. They are very gentle and affectionate, enjoying the company of humans, but as few can actually see them, so they are regarded with a lot of suspicion and fear.

Of course, there are lots more magical creatures to know about and some of the most fun-sounding are those that Luna Lovegood and her father believe in but can’t prove the existence of. Just because you’ve never seen them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist!

Featured Post: Kitting the Whole Family Out with Great Swimwear

Brilliant beach in West Wales ideal for swimming or coasteering

Swimming is a great way to past the time. It is fun, keeps you fit and is something you can potentially enjoy year round, as a family.

No point in the UK is more than 70 miles from the sea. So, most families can easily take a day trip to the seaside. During the winter months, you can simply switch to visiting your nearest swimming pool.

To start enjoying this pastime all you need to do is to kit everyone out with some swimwear. You can easily buy what you need from online retailers like Simply Be. Here are a few tips to help you to quickly find what you need.

Measure everyone

Before you do anything else, measure everyone you are planning to buy new swimwear for. This is the best way to get the sizing right.

Another way of doing it is to measure something that you already own. Provided it fits well, of course. It is easy to measure a pair of trunks or swimming shorts. If you want to measure a swimsuit or bikini that you already own, this guide will help you to do it properly.

Buy good quality swimwear

If you are planning to go swimming on a regular basis, it makes sense to buy good quality items. Remember that both salt and chlorinated water make swimwear wear out faster. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about this fact. Rinsing everyone’s costumes out as soon as possible will help. However, if you buy cheap swimwear it will not last very long. The fibres will start to break down after just a few weeks of wear. When that happens the costume will start to sag and fade.

Buy the right cut

For both men and women, there are several styles of swimwear to choose between. You want everyone in the family to feel comfortable while wearing their swimming costumes. So, take the time to find out what each member of your family would like to wear and try to buy something in that style.

Of course, it needs to be modest. If the swimwear you are buying will be worn on holiday bear in mind the dress code of the place you are planning to visit. For example, in France, most swimming pools will not allow men or boys to wear swimming shorts. So, if you will be staying there you will need to kit the male members of your family out with trunks instead.

If you, or other family members, are planning to take part in water sports or beach games you will need to bear this in mind as well. Some styles of swimwear, for example, string bikinis are not suitable for most watersports.

Goggles and buoyancy aids

If your children are young or are not confident in the water you will want to buy them some sort of buoyancy aids. A few years ago I wrote a short guide about buying them and goggles. You can read it here.

10 Fun Activities to Do with the Kids This Winter

Winter can be a tricky time to be a parent. The weather is often poor, the days are short, and money can be a little bit tight after Christmas. So, what are you going to do with the kids at the weekend or during a half term? Well, here are ten fun activities you could try to stave off a serious case of cabin fever…

  1. Go on a treasure hunt

Fresh air is the perfect remedy for children who are feeling little cooped up, so head out into the great outdoors having devised a ‘treasure hunt’ of sorts. Make them a checklist of things to find, such as a spider’s web, a bird’s nest or a frost-laced leaf.

  1. Do some baking

Kids love to help in the kitchen, and getting them involved in a spot of baking is a great way to develop their confidence in the kitchen and start teaching essential life skills. Whip up a batch of muffins (they’re pretty forgiving if your little helpers are a bit heavy handed), or help them make some gooey chocolate chip cookies. Delicious!

  1. Walk along the beach

If you’re lucky enough to live near the coast (or want to bundle in the car for the weekend), why not head out to the seaside? A blustery winter’s walk on the seafront is great fun, and the kids will enjoy leaning into the wind and watching the waves crash on the shore. Treat yourselves to fish and chips after and remember to take photos to capture those happy memories.

  1. Build a snowman

With any luck winter brings a dusting of snow for the kids to enjoy, so if you happen to see any settling where you live, head straight out to build a snowman. Little ones might need some help to roll the snow, and children of all ages will love rummaging round the house for carrots, scarves and pieces of coal (or failing that, small potatoes) to make the snowman come to life. Just make sure you’ve kitted the kids out in warm stylish clothing before they play in the snow – a warm coat, a sturdy pair of wellies and a pair of gloves are essential items if they’re going to enjoy themselves.

  1. Make a winter campfire

Children love to watch a fire crackling as much as adults do, so why not build a winter campfire in your back garden? Be sure to build your fire safely, and then pull up chairs for some quality time as a family. You can swap stories, toast marshmallows and sip hot chocolate together.

  1. Build a fort

Remember how much you loved building forts when you were little? It’s a lovely thing to do with the kids, so sacrifice those just-washed bed sheets and drape them over the arms of the sofas. Pull in some pillows, add a string of battery-powered fairy lights and let the kids camp out there for the day. They can play games, eat their lunch in there and perhaps even take an afternoon nap…

  1. Play in the forest

It’s impossible to get our kids off their computer screens entirely, but you can certainly get them using their imaginations outdoors if you suggest a stroll through the forest. Encourage a bit of imaginary role play: wizard wands have been fashioned from many a twig, and a good branch doubles as a sword to do battle with any roaming dragons or bad guys…

  1. Have a dance party

Having a boogie round the house is a great way of exercising and improving everyone’s mood: no mean feat in the depths of winter! Find a good playlist, turn up the volume and encourage the kids to let loose. You can always throw a game of musical statues into the mix if you want to keep them at it for a little while longer.

  1. Host a film festival

There’s nothing nicer than being tucked up inside on a rainy winter’s day, so why not watch some films together? Add an extra element of fun by theming the films around food – a particularly good trick if you want to get your little ones to try a new dish. For instance, serve steaming bowls of ratatouille while watching the Ratatouille film, or tuck into spaghetti and meatballs while watching Lady and the Tramp.

  1. Get crafty

Finally, there are thousands of craft ideas to do with children if you look online, but one that’s particularly fun and requires little in the way of materials is this one. You’ll need basic supplies such as paper plates, paints, glue and elastic (all of which will be available at a well-stocked supermarket for instance), and so long as you don’t mind the kids making a bit of a mess, you’ll keep them entertained for hours.

So, which of these fun ideas will you be doing with the kids this winter? Let us know!

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Unless you’ve been in an underground bunker for the last few months you’ll know that the release of J.K Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is imminent. This Friday in fact. Along with Star Wars Rogue One, it’s tipped to be one of the top films of the year, so expectations were high as we fastened our seatbelts to drive around the M25 to the O2 for an advanced screening last night.

It turns out that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the perfect tonic for a two and a half hour car ride at an average speed of 20 miles an hour, followed by 40 minutes of queuing outside a cinema screen in a corridor bereft of air-conditioning but with no shortage of other people.

Yes, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I finally sat down in the cinema with Fifi, the boy and one of their Harry Potter mad friends yesterday but fortunately once the opening credits rolled, everything was put right. I’ll get it out of the way up front, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, erm, fantastic.

Since Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is based around the concept of a textbook of magical creatures, it is able to create it’s own characters and story in an entirely different manner to a straightforward book adaptation, thereby neatly sidestepping any pacing issues that adapting a 500+ page novel into a two hour film might suffer from. To this end there is a fairly strong argument that it’s a better movie than the majority of the Harry Potter films because it doesn’t have to remain true to a narrative book whilst cutting massive sections of it out.

The story follows wizard and magizoologist Newt Scamander as he arrives in America to release a beast he’s freed from captivity. Through a series of amusing incidents, his magic briefcase that’s full of beasties gets swapped and a load of the creatures get released by mistake. Newt and his new made friends Jacob (a Muggle), Tina and her sister Queenie go through various scrapes to try and recover them, whilst the New York wizarding community also fight against unexplained manifestations of magic that threaten outright war.

Although there are a group of four lead characters, who you’ll see in the majority of posters, this film is really about Newt, played by Eddie Redmayne who seems to be doing his darnedest to channel Matt Smith’s Doctor Who, (costume, check, TARDIS/briefcase that’s bigger on the inside, check, wand/sonic screwdriver that gets him out of a tight corner, check) but then that’s not a bad thing and Redmayne is great.

I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan, I’ve watched the films and am currently (tortuously) reading The Prison of Azkaban to the kids at a rate of two pages a night, but that didn’t matter as the story is self contained-there are continuity nods all the way through: Dumbledore is mentioned, apparently the wand maker from the HP films is name checked etc, but if you miss these, you’ve not missed out and they’re not shoehorned in too obviously.

The film looks wonderful, the 1920’s New York setting is done perfectly, there are plenty of great performances too and the characters interact well with the CGI, which helps make for a believable world. Since the film deals with adults, there is no need to explain everything to the protagonists, which at times hampered the Harry Potter films, everybody just gets on with stuff. The majority of the magic used is of the teleportation, things moving on their own, broken stuff repairing itself or wand waving followed by an explosion, so it doesn’t require exposition of what the spell is or means. This lets the plot flow without any unnatural pauses.

The film gets a thumbs up from me but to put it properly to the test, I asked the kids. Despite the film finishing at around quarter past nine on a school night, they loved it. The kids friend was literally bouncing up and down with excitement in her Harry Potter t-shirt afterwards (a continuation of the bouncing beforehand that had to stop once we sat down). The kids had a long discussion over the best of the beasts and the funniest way they were recaptured. Fifi said there were one of two scary bits that were quite intense but overall she loved it- she’s the one out of the three kids with the least Harry Potter exposure, so that bodes well the films mass appeal.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out on Friday 18 November, with a 12A rating.

Review: Kung Fu Panda 3

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In a movie world that seems obsessed with franchises and a quick turnaround on a successful format, it’s telling that it’s been 5 years since Kung Fu Panda 2 hit our screens. Five years. The boy was 4 at the time, the age of our littlest now. That’s a long time in both cinema and a kids life but it shows that Dreamworks are more interested in making a great film than a quick profit.

IMG_0633Taking the kids to see the European premier of Kung Fu Panda 3 in Leicester Square was an interesting experience. Our kids like rewatching their favourite movies (endlessly), so they’ve been watching the first two Kung Fu Pandas quite a lot anyway but it’s always interesting to return to a franchise for a new film when so much time has passed. Would our eldest still be as enthusiastic for Po’s adventures now he’s almost nine as he was when he was four?

The short answer is a definite yes. Dreamworks aren’t Disney and that isn’t a problem. Disney do timeless, they do musical numbers but Dreamworks do sass, they do humour and when they do it right, they have kids and adults alike rolling in the cinema aisles. Outside of the Kung Fu Panda films, we love the likes of Megamind (Met-troce-ity never fails to make me laugh), Shrek and their great adaptation of How to Train Your Dragon. In fact our daughters favourite film is their 2002 horse movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

All the things that made the first two Kung Fu Panda films great are still here. Po is still as dim as ever, and the scene where he fails to recognise his birth father is as funny in the film as it is in the trailer. It is in a way nice to see that Pandas generally are as generally clumsy and greedy as Po is, and without trying to sound too pretentious film critic, it’s good that the characters, Po especially, are given room to develop and grow.

The story sees Po facing two great challenges, he must defeat Kai, a kung fu master who has crossed over from the spirit world to extract his vengeance on the world, and he must struggle with what it means to be a panda. There’s no certainty on what is the biggest challenge either!

We particularly liked the bit when Master Shifu tells Po he has to teach the rest Kung Fu. It doesn’t go well:

Of course little kids are unlikely to care whether Po has character development or not, they’re more interested in the action, mild peril and the humour. Kung Fu Panda has this in spades. There’s nothing funnier than watching Po attempt to train a panda army, only to have the kids eat all his teaching props. It harks back brilliantly to Master Shifu training Po with a bowl of dumplings in the first film.

IMG_20160306_123433011There are plenty of little nods to the previous two films, which to my mind shows a real love of the material from the people in charge. Talking of which, the two co-directors joined Kate Hudson, Jack Black and the Vamps, who played a couple of songs, on stage before the movie to tell us how cool it was. They weren’t wrong you know!

This is a film that you can genuinely enjoy with the kids, rather than endure. Love it and it’s out on general release on 11 March.