Film Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Just when you thought the world of Harry Potter couldn’t get any darker, along comes a bleak-as-soot spinoff that makes the earlier series look like kids’ stuff. Borrowing its title from one of the textbooks Harry studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” marks the first screenplay written by J.K. Rowling herself. Though the world-renowned novelist had always kept a tight rein on how those adapting her Potter stories went about their task, this assignment gives her the unprecedented ability to address her massive global fanbase directly, while current events have given her something more substantive to say.

The first in an ambitious five-film pentaptych, whose first two installments are being handled by David Yates (the director responsible for the four ultra-bleak blockbusters that wrapped the Potter franchise), “Fantastic Beasts” does double-duty as yet another imagination-tickling fantasy adventure and a deeply troubled commentary on tolerance, fear, and bigotry in the world today. Focusing on a scatterbrained magizoologist named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), whose personal crusade for the protection of magical creatures will eventually lead him to publish the aforementioned guide, this often heavy-handed political allegory trades present-day England for Prohibition-era New York, at a time when conflicts between magic folk and No-Majs (American for “Muggle”) are brewing — when the humans aren’t fighting world wars among themselves, that is.

It’s 1926, and Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a bottomless suitcase full of illegal “livestock,” ranging from a mischievous Niffler (a naughty duck-billed marsupial with a nose for treasure) to a giant storm-causing Thunderbird, whose keeper intends to release it back into the wild somewhere far from people in Arizona. But the United States is notoriously intolerant when it comes to magic. (Remember the Salem witch trials?) As a precaution, all beasts have been outlawed by MACUSA, the Yankee equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, with stiff penalties for any who disobey.

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Scamander means well, but he’s a bit of a klutz — and not nearly as careful as someone charged with keeping a menagerie of potentially dangerous creatures really ought to be. (If he were cleverer, he probably would have left behind those beasts capable of destroying New York City, such as the atom-bomb-like Obscurus, before traveling.) In his absent-mindedness, however, Scamander accidentally swaps suitcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj factory worker, who swiftly unleashes half a dozen or so of the animals into the streets — animals that have a nasty habit of leaping directly into the lenses of Philippe Rousselot’s 3D cameras.

What follows may as well be a high-end, period-themed upgrade to the popular Pokémon GO iPhone game, as Scamander plays a freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed version of Ash Ketchum, scrambling to track down and recapture the escaped creatures before things get really out of hand. Things first spin out of control in an unusually complicated scene at the bank, where Rowling and Yates layer so many levels of surveillance — ex-auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) spies on Scamander, who is following Kowalski, who in turn is being watched by a suspicious bank manager — that it starts to feel like trying to follow a piece of fruit as it passes through a blender.

Maintaining Yates as director lends a consistency to the project, and yet, it would have been refreshing to get a completely new take on Rowling’s world with this series, especially considering how murky and self-serious the final films became. Still, Yates knows this world as well as anyone, and he excels at finding visual solutions for challenging ideas (whether it’s how a witch might cook without an oven or a creature who either grows or shrinks to the available space). With all its ties to Harry Potter arcana, “Fantastic Beasts” has clearly been designed for the most devoted of Rowling’s fans, and though it may prove confusing to newcomers, the faithful will appreciate the fact the film never talks down to its audience.

Oddly, Rowling’s script gives us practically no information about Newt’s backstory at this point, whereas Tina gets multiple flashbacks over the course of the film. That’s probably because Rowling, whose world-building skills are rivaled only by George Lucas, appears to be primarily concerned with plot at this point. Tina’s memories serve the story, while this two-hour-plus pilot evidently doesn’t leaves much room for the sort of character detail we’d all like to get about Newt (whom Redmayne plays with stooped shoulders and a slightly bow-legged walk, easily winning sympathy for someone whose every judgment seems to endanger the fate of his kind).

These are times of intense superstition for No-Majs and wizards alike, and though the latter are progressive in their choice of leader, electing a mixed-race female president named Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), they’re largely intolerant of No-Maj Americans — with good reason, as it turns out: There’s a new sect of magic-fearing protesters on the rise, led by a zealot named Mary Lou Barebone (played with Puritanical self-righteousness by Samantha Morton). Outfitted like a character out of “The Crucible,” Barebone steals/adopts children from the magic families she exposes, but doesn’t keep nearly a close enough eye on her own kids, leaving room for her deeply troubled “son” Credence (Ezra Miller) to hold private meetings with a powerful — and power-hungry — auror, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

Naturally, Percival is hiding one of those elaborate duplicitous agendas that Rowling loves to invent, raising the stakes for her protagonists — Newt, Jacob, Tina, and Tina’s sister, a mind-reading legilimens named Queenie (Alison Sudol, who looks the part of a period-appropriate showgirl). It’s no long enough to merely recapture all of the fantastic beasts on the loose; now our heroes must prevent Mary Lou and Percival from exposing America’s magic underworld to the unsuspecting human population.

The enormous task at hand is better suited to some of Newt’s powerful friends back home (like Albus Dumbledore, who may appear in future installments). Judging by the desperate look on Redmayne’s face — reminiscent of a waiter attempting to balance a wobbly, six-foot stack of porcelain dishes — he’s going to need considerable reinforcements before facing off against the series’ new ultra-villain, a powerful dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald, who shows up just long enough to disappear.

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Unsurprisingly, “Fantastic Beasts” amplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of Rowling’s storytelling approach, which unfolds in the episodic style of vintage serials — a cliff-hanger-oriented tactic that works well in novels, where readers might otherwise be tempted to put the book down after each chapter, but feels less elegant on screen, since viewers invariably commit to taking in the entire story in one sitting. And yet, the writer has learned something from the Potter franchise, clearly going out of her way to establish a foundation that can be enriched and expanded upon in future films. One can hardly forget how powerful the revelation of Severus Snape’s backstory was, enriched by having a master plan from the beginning, and here, we can sense the first glimmers of character details that will require several installments to take focus.

And yet, rather than simply promising a greater scope to come, “Fantastic Beasts” takes place in a world far larger than any of the Potter films, by virtue of both its heightened budget and setting: taking place in New York City, right under noses of the No-Majs. It may be cute to obliviate witnesses one at a time, memory-wiping bystanders the way the Men in Black did after any alien sighting, but to do so to a city at large smacks of cheating.

Though Rowling takes the opportunity to introduce a few tolerance-oriented messages, one can’t help but question the limits of the allegory: In the real world, bigots don’t have a real reason to hate members of other races and religions, whereas wizards — however much we love them — pose a very real threat to normal people (grisly Obscurus attacks result in at least two deaths, and the destruction of large swaths of New York). It’s the same logical flaw that operates in both the “Avengers” and “X-Men” franchises, and Rowling doesn’t have much to add to the “Potter” franchise  … yet. But considering that Queenie and Jacob’s romantic subplot is by far the film’s most charming detail, there are clues that Rowling will have more to say on the subject of half-bloods — such as Harry Potter, born to mixed magic-and-Muggle parents — in the very near future.

Film Review: 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'

Reviewed at Warner Bors. Studios, Burbank, Nov. 11, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 133 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. Pictures release and presentation of a Heyday Films production. Producers: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram. Executive producers: Tim Lewis, Neil Blair, Rick Senat.

Crew

Director: David Yates. Screenplay: J.K. Rowling. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D): Philippe Rousselot. Editor: Mark Day.

With

Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp.

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  1. Beasts says:

    Amazing movie, they’ve done it again! The cast was amazing (though Johnny Depp as Grindewald takes time to get used to),visual effects stunning and the movie is everything you can except it to be. The movie has so many great moments, it’s happy and funny yet serious enough and has AMAZING humour, I laughed a lot while watching it and so did everyone else :) LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THIS MOVIE

  2. davidlarson2848gmailcom says:

    This film made me feel like I spent 4 hours attending the pig latin societies annual “Inside Joke Tellers” convention. Had I not been with a group of people I would have walked out within 45 minutes. Nearly unbearable.

  3. Ron Jones says:

    First, Harry Potter was not a half-blood. He was pure wizard (his mother was a half-blood).

    I was looking forward to this latest of Rowling’s tales until the reviewer got to “…a deeply troubled commentary on tolerance, fear, and bigotry in the world today.”

    After the vitriol and violence visited upon those who didn’t vote for globalism and the relentless drive towards centralization [on both sides of the pond], I just want a little escape from reality. Dark and intense is fine, but leave off the moralizing political commentary.

  4. Jason says:

    Harry himself is not a half-blood. He isn’t a pure-blood, but his mother is clearly a witch and his father clearly a wizard. Shape is a half-blood, as is Tom Riddle.

    However, I agree with the sum of this review. I found the movie slow and wimpy and walked out at the long scene before they obliviated Jacob (if they ever did it). I don’t like Rowling’s political agenda, and I don’t think it is appropriate the way she is pushing it.

  5. Laura Coleman says:

    What an atrocious piece of unknowledagable and unresesrched garbage. Journalistic integreity is slowly fading into nothing in this world. And seriously where is the spoiler alert?

  6. Callan says:

    It’s so sad when the writers don’t know what theyre writing about.
    Harry Potter a half-board… Learn your Potter before you do things like this, it’s embarrassing.

  7. Lily says:

    Typo alert: “It’s no long enough to merely recapture all of the fantastic beasts on the loose…”

    I believe it should be “It’s no longer enough.”

  8. Maria says:

    Eddie Redmayne channeling Doctor Who’s 11th Doctor… I’ll stick to the 11th Doctor. Thanks for the whole plot.

  9. Ishita Farsaiya says:

    You need to give spoiler alert. You have practically given away the story!!!

  10. nidaabdullah says:

    You just gave away the whole story….

  11. kenfurman46 says:

    The review is a cop out and the trailer is a mess.

  12. Skyler says:

    Harry isn’t a mudblood, Hermione is.

  13. Bs says:

    Actually Harry Potter is a pure blood, both his parents are wizards. His mother is a “mudblood” somebody who has non magically parents, very much like hermione.

    Mmm I think some of the changes are a shame, she built such an incredible world including how small magic was in America due to the slow removal of native Americans and they’re culture. Yet here we are with a bombastic nation for wizards, why aren’t you in the tri-wizard cup, oh yeah because your smaller in the magical world than Britain France and Bulgaria.

    Now I was excited for it being in America but I wished she’d stuck to her own lore.

    And don’t get me started on no-majs… seriously that’s got be a practical joke.

    I’m still going anyway but doesn’t stop me moaning and thinking about what it could have been, now when are the Harry Potter studios releasing a replica of the wands.

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