FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
(Dir. David Yates, 2016)
Where to find them is in a suitcase owned by a one Mr. Newt Scamander, who we meet just off the boat in New York in 1926 at the beginning of this spin-off of the HARRY POTTER series, which takes place 70 years before our young hero Harry first picks up a wand.
Scamander, portrayed by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as a nervous, awkward bloke who even acknowledges that people find him annoying, gets caught up in mayhem at a bank in an amusing opening sequence in which his suitcase of crazy creatures gets mistakenly switched with one owned by Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) that contains pastries (Kowalski was at the bank trying to get a loan to open a bakery).
We learn that while in Britain folks without magical abilities are called “Muggles,” in America they are dubbed “No-Majs.”
Witnessing this event and recognizing Scamander as a wizard is a witch by the name of Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who takes in Scamander to the offices of theMagical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), but the President of the division, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) isn’t interested in the arrest because Tina was just demoted to the Wand Permit Office.
However, Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, the Director of Magical Security, is intrigued about the contents of Scamander’s suitcase, which at the moment is causing more mayhem back at Kowalski’s apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
After restoring the damage to the building, Newt and Tina gather Kowalski and the suitcase and make their way to Tina’s apartment where we meet Tina’s younger sister, Queenie Goldstein (actress/singer Alison Sudol), another witch who can read minds. Later that night, Scamander uses the suitcase as a portal to another dimension which contains a zoo of all of Scamander’s surreal, colorful creatures. Kowalski is stunned by what he sees, but saddened to learn that at the end of the adventure he’ll have to be obliviated, which means that his memory of his experience with his new friends will be wiped clean.
Meanwhile, another No-Maj, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society (a.k.a. the Second Salemers) rails against the existence of witches and Wizards, while her kids, Creedence and Modesty (Ezra Miller and Faith Wood-Blagrove) suspiciously sulk behind her.
There is also another subplot involving Jon Voight as Henry Shaw Sr., a newspaper mogul whose slick senator son, Henry Jr. (Josh Cowdery) is running for re-election, but despite a lively rally scene they don’t factor in much (probably just here to set some of the scene for the sequels).
The movie’s second half concerns Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie working together to find one of the missing beasts and to stop a dark force called an Obscurial, which appears as an eerie, black cloud, from destroying the city. This, of course, involves an AVENGERS amount of city destruction via CGI that is seamlessly impressive but no match for what’s onscreen in DOCTOR STRANGE.
FANTASTIC BEASTS began life as a plot-less Hogwarts textbook that J.K. Rowlings wrote under the pseudonym of Scamander as a sideline enhancement to the Harry Potter book series. Here Rowlings fleshes the concept out into her first screenplay adaptation, which is proposed to be the first in a five part series.
Not sure how I feel about a second franchise sprouting out of what was a 128-page book – echoes of the bloated film trilogy made out of “The Hobbit” – but if Yates can keep the quality control in check like he does here, it could make for a very fun ride.
For Yates, who has directed four of the HARRY POTTER films, has fashioned a worthy, witty spinoff that has a lot of charm, visual splendor, and likable characters (especially Fogler, who steals the film from his fellow cast members throughout) to carry us through its two hour and thirteen minute running time, in which only a few scenes drag.
Now, I’ve only read the first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I’ve seen all of the movies and for the most part enjoyed them. I may even agree with the AV Club’s Noel Murray, who in this fine essay, argues that the series might be “the best sustained exercise in fantasy literature adaptation in Hollywood history.”
Not sure if this prequel series will reach that height, but its first installment, FANTASTIC BEASTS, works both as an extension of the HP series’ ethos, and as a piece of standalone entertainment. Many may be cynical about Warner Brothers milking this particular magical cash cow, but I believe Rowlings and Yates will prove that their vision is big enough to sustain another round of magical storytelling.