'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'
You’d think that eight ‘Harry Potter’ movies would be enough, but that’s not how Hollywood works, silly. J.K. Rowling’s beloved children’s series captivated a generation with a distinctly magical sense of storytelling. More importantly, it also guaranteed Warner Bros. about a billion dollars in box office revenue annually. Obviously, the studio was curious to see if Rowling had any other stories set in that universe that she might kinda sorta want to tell. She did. Now we have ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and thankfully, it’s good. This may be a superfluous spinoff picture, but it gives superfluous spinoff pictures a good name.
In an unexpected bit of clairvoyance, this first chapter of a promised five-film wizarding series takes place in a divisive U.S.-of-A. split right down the middle by two factions who completely despise each other. In this case, it’s about wizards and their unfortunate Muggle counterparts (though in America, they are called “No-Majs” for some reason). The year is 1926 and this tension has reached a fever pitch that could well lead to civil war. Plunked into the middle of that world is our hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a dorky wizard who specializes in capturing, studying and loving all the strangest and most magical monsters from around the globe. He arrives in New York with a magic-enhanced bottomless trunk that contains every gosh darn monster you can imagine. Unfortunately, he lets a few loose in Manhattan, requiring a special New York team of magic Men in Black to do cleanup and keep the No-Majs from catching on to the secret world.
Sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly convoluted. Writing an original screenplay for the first time, Rowling is still very much a novelist. Her interest is primarily in world-building, creatively goofy naming, as well as finding strange details and even stranger characters. The movie can feel all over the place and struggles to find a steady flow. There’s the A-plot involving Redmayne and a steady stream of cuddly, if uncontrollable creatures. Then there’s also a B-plot about a super evil wizard floating about whom everyone fears and who also has a taste for leveling cities with his evil ways. Both stories kind of come together and kind of don’t, since Rowling is essentially writing a pilot episode and spends more of her time setting things up than providing much in the way of satisfying storytelling.
Thankfully, the world is indeed as magical as promised and worth getting lost in, with plenty of characters to follow around for a few more adventures. Redmayne is unsurprisingly the highlight. His both goofy and reserved performance is endlessly amusing and thankfully devoid of the usual, obvious heroics. Katherine Waterston is endearingly awkward as a wizard detective helping clean up the mess, while Alison Sudol plays her mind-reading sister (also neurotic, as with seemingly everyone here). Dan Folger is on double-take and confusion duty as the Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) caught in the middle for the ride (and whom Sudol has a crush on, because there must be some romantic potential established in any ongoing narrative of this scale). Toss in Colin Farrell at his most amusingly muggy as a B-level baddie (of sorts) and endearing presences like Ron Perlman, Samantha Morton and Jon Voight in supporting roles, and you’ve got an amusing tapestry of oddballs who are always compelling to watch even when the story isn’t exactly tight.
With four-time ‘Potter’ veteran director David Yates at the helm, you can assume that all will feel very much in keeping with a brand that has long since been established. Everything looks and feels just right for this world, without over-relying on too many callbacks, references or in-jokes to distract from the new wizarding universe. The action is sweeping and exciting. The humor is endearingly quirky. The characters are all eccentric. Production values run about as high as humanly possible. There’s even a little dabbling into unexpected darkness with some hints of America’s witch-hunting past woven into the fabric. If there needs to be a spinoff ‘Harry Potter’ series, at least this one is off to a good start. Everyone involved behind the scenes knows the world too well to break the rules or depart too far off brand. Fans should feel satisfied.
Would it have been nice for the film to veer off into wildly unexpected directions, or for a distinct filmmaker to get a chance to reinvent Rowling’s world for a new franchise? (Remember the wonders Alfonso Cuaron worked when he was allowed to play in this world in a way no other filmmaker dared.) Well, of course. Hopefully that will happen in future chapters. After all, this is essentially the pilot episode for a blockbuster miniseries. It has to thanklessly lay down groundwork , but it does that well. Now let’s see if Rowling can pull off the same magic trick twice.