Before Rubeus Hagrid took over Care of Magical Creatures class, and no doubt ignored any and all warnings laid out in the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” textbook, magizoologist Newt Scamander first had to travel the world and document all the exotic fauna he could find.
The year is 1926. The Tilt-A- Whirl, power steering, and restaurant drive-throughs are new inventions. The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has mysteriously disappeared. The Great War is comfortably in the rearview mirror (or so No-Majs think). And the New Salem Philanthropic Society and Second Salemers (anti-magic) are out in full force.
It’s in this environment that Newt (Eddie Redmayne) makes his fateful stop in New York City on the tail end of this world tour, kicking off an adventure all its own with his magically enhanced case of creatures.
Initially unaware of the tense relationship between the No-Maj (non-magic) and wizarding communities in the United States, Newt is possibly a tad too careless as he makes his way through the city. Enough so, in fact, that when he bumps into a No-Maj, he mistakenly switches cases with him. And, unfortunately, retrieving the case proves more difficult than expected.
As Newt races around the city attempting to gather his case and its precious cargo, New York is rocked by a series of incidents that draw a great deal of unwanted attention to the magical community hiding there. While the creatures are certainly central to the film, is there a greater plot afoot?
Make no mistake: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sets up far more than a showcase of the universe’s wildlife, and successfully casts a spell on the audience at every turn.
As you’re likely well aware, Fantastic Beasts was penned by the incomparable and inventive J.K. Rowling in her first attempt at writing for the big screen. And, as with her novels, a great strength of her storytelling lies in her engaging and lovable (or hateable) characters – including creatures.
Newt is the socially awkward outsider, even among those in the wizarding community, on a quest to save misunderstood magical creatures from unjust extermination. A true conservationist.
The unsuspecting No-Maj with whom Newt experiences the case mix-up is aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While likable and friendly, the poor guy can’t seem to catch any kind of break.
And the two leading ladies the gentlemen cross paths with are sisters Porpentina “Tina” (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). Both working for MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America), Tina and Queenie are torn between doing what they feel is right and adhering to the strict set of rules placed on the magical community in the U.S.
Together, our quartet of heroes must wrangle creatures and battle the unknown, with MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Second Salemer Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) lurking along the way.
I’ll be the first to admit it, but I was pleasantly surprised by the humor in Fantastic Beasts. Fogler steals just about any scene he’s in with his comedic timing and delivery, and he and Sudol have incredible chemistry for a relationship that involves very little dialogue (you’ll see what I mean). The creatures, unsurprisingly, are also brimming with personality. I’d be utterly flabbergasted if after its show(and valuables)-stealing performance, you won’t also be dying for a Niffler of your own. Or possibly a Bowtruckle.
All this being said, I’d be remiss not to mention that there are also a few distinct instances that are incredibly dark and somewhat difficult to watch, far more so than just about anything experienced in the Potter films. Dealing with topics that range from prejudice and bigotry to the way governments handle prisoners or conservation efforts, Fantastic Beasts at the very least suggests that this 5-film series will be a bit more ‘adult.’
While I can’t say I loved every creature they conjured up, Fantastic Beasts is a must-see for all Potter fans as Rowling and director David Yates take you back to the wizarding world you fell in love with (albeit in a different time and place). And even if you’re not a diehard Potter fan I’d still give the film a shot, since you’re not likely to see much else like it. As Jacob Kowalski aptly puts it, most people “ain’t got the brains to make this up.”
**One last thing I want to make mention of: The reason I had the opportunity to see an advance screening of the film was due to a benefit showing for Lumos, the charity founded by Rowling. I urge everyone to visit www.wearelumos.org to at least learn more about the organization and its aims for yourself, and possibly contribute where you’re able.
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller
US Release: November 18, 2016, Heyday Films, Warner Bros.