Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The magic is back—even if Harry Potter isn’t—in this fanciful fantasy, which kicks off a whole new franchise from J.K. Rowling.
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Marvel has its movie universe. So does DC. And now, so does J.K. Rowling. The author who gave us Harry Potter calls her universe the “Wizarding World.” It’s the world where Harry Potter lives, and Fantastic Beasts is the first of a five-part series that will show us what else that world is about. A whole new franchise is off to a positively ripping start.

Based on Rowling’s book of the same name, Fantastic Beasts, the movie, is a sort of prequel to the Harry Potter saga. That alone makes it much more than its source material, a slim volume that is essentially an encyclopedia of, well, fantastic beasts. Now, Rowling has given all of those beasts a backstory with her first screenplay. Fittingly, it’s a whopper.

Set in 1926—decades before Harry Potter’s freshman year at Hogwarts Academy—Fantastic Beasts introduces “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, played by the gifted Eddie Redmayne with a winningly dithering mix of nerdiness, intrepidness and pure wonder. Potter loyalists know him only as the author of a textbook Harry read at Hogwarts (a book that Rowling subsequently published, using the Scamander nom de plume). But here he is, in the flesh, having just landed in New York City, on the last leg of a global expedition seeking magical creatures to study, collect and protect.

That last purpose is important, given that the country is rife with tension between sharply divided factions. On one side: wizards, witches and other advocates of magic, both good and bad. On the other side: pretty much the rest of the populace—referred to here as “No-Majs” (aka “Muggles” to Potter fans). However, the most extremist No-Majs call themselves “Second Salemers.” You can probably guess where they’re going with that.

Somewhere in the middle of all this contentiousness, working under the radar to try to maintain order, is a mysterious organization called the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA for short). Led by high-priestess-like Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), this group’s mandate is to monitor the comings and goings of supernatural beings, and contain their activity whenever necessary. Of course, MACUSA almost always deems it necessary.

That makes New York the wrong place at the wrong time to lose a magic suitcase full of fantastic beasts. But that’s just what Newt Scamander manages to do. And most of the rest of the film is a consistently delightful mad scramble to round them all up.

Newt is aided by a motley crew that includes recently fired MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her vampy flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and one Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a would-be boutique baker who is stuck working in a canning factory. Tina and Queenie are both good witches; Jacob is just an ordinary Joe swept up in the mayhem. But as oddly assorted as this quartet is, they have an almost instant chemistry. And as it warms, it provides the heart of the film: the part that will have people coming back for the next four installments.

The titular beasts are, of course, based on the creatures described in the original book, and several of them have appeared in the Harry Potter novels and/or movies. But all assembled on the same big screen, they do not disappoint. Actually, quite the opposite. Most are imaginative composites of real live animals. One behemoth with the body of a rhino and the blowhole of a whale immediately comes to mind. So do the cobalt blue snakes with wings and raptor beaks, who enlarge themselves in proportion to the space around them.

But maybe the most inspired critters are the most abstract ones—such as the chittering, tussling mini-things that resemble origami figures made out of newspaper, and the f/x department’s pièce de résistance, the entity called Obscurial, a manifestation of negative emotion/energy that possesses a troubled orphan before emerging as a turbulent swirl of smoke, sparks, something slitheringly viscous and something else that looks like charred Spanish moss, all inside a gelatinous bubble. It’s as artful as an installation, and as fascinating as it is disturbing. And it’s typical of this film’s visual effects, whether animal (too many to count), vegetable (Newt’s amusingly cheeky walking-stick companion) or otherworldly. Where other fantasy films seek to dazzle and awe you with their state-of-the-art effects, this one wants to delight you, to amuse you, to sheerly delight you, all while advancing the story. Will they win an Oscar? Well, they should. At the very least, they set the bar high for all future fantasy endeavors.

But none of this would work nearly so well without Rowling’s unique, apparently boundless imagination, and her knack for seamlessly working in narrative threads that reflect on such timely topics as anti-immigration, economic inequality and xenophobic intolerance. It’s no mere whim that this story is set on the eve of the Great Depression, and no accident that it’s especially relevant in the year 2016.

It’s a big bonus that David Yates—director of the final four Harry Potter films—was available to direct Fantastic Beasts. At this point, he and Rowling have become a true team. It is to be hoped that they remain so for the next four films – and whatever lies beyond them.

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