Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.18.16
Daniel Radcliffe was a great Harry Potter, but Eddie Redmayne is a fantastic Newt Scamander.
Newt is the pluperfect misfit researcher — magizoologist, to be precise — who is far more comfortable with his beloved “fantastic beasts,” than he is with fellow human beings. Redmayne is appropriately disheveled, like an absent-minded professor who dressed in the dark; his bashful gaze is concealed beneath a mop of unruly hair, and he often rushes in blindly where mages fear to tread.
At the same time, he’s puppy-dog adorable, with an aura of vulnerability that proves deceptive, under certain circumstances. He may not be able to look a woman in the eye, but he’ll stop at nothing when one of his critters is involved.
More to the point — and just like the trouble-prone Harry Potter — Newt thinks nothing of breaking the rules, if he honestly believes the reasons are valid. Much to the dismay of the higher-ups at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA).
J.K. Rowling penned Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them in 2001, in between the fourth and fifth installments of her Harry Potter series. It actually was one of Harry’s textbooks: required for first-year Hogwarts students, in its 52nd edition when Harry, Ron and Hermione are assigned to read it, and complete with an introduction by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.
This “faux” research tome, compiled by Scamander, describes his research into magizoology, and provides detailed descriptions of 85 magical creatures found throughout the world. As an added droll touch, the pages includes scribblings, doodles and often snarky comments by Ron, who apparently suffered through its pages.
The book was a lark on Rowling’s part — something of a “bonus” for her readers — but not a trivial endeavor. More than 80 percent of the cover price of each copy sold benefited the charity Comic Relief, aiding poor children throughout the world.
Flash-forward to 2013, following the conclusion of the Harry Potter film cycle, at which point Warner Bros. announced that “Fantastic Beasts” would serve as a template for a new five-film series, depicting the many adventures and encounters experienced by Newt, as he developed the data that would lead to the debut publication of his textbook.
And the films would be scripted by Rowling herself.
This was an eyebrow-raiser. Hollywood is littered with the remains of honored novelists who couldn’t survive the collaborative filmmaking atmosphere: luminaries from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler to Joan Didion and Michael Chabon.
But Rowling’s fans won’t be surprised to learn that her impressive writing chops are equally engaging on the big screen. While it’s true that this Fantastic Beasts is a bit top-heavy with exposition — and two primary plots that don’t always mesh elegantly — the imaginative storyline is always engaging and entertaining, the primary characters endearing, amusing and well worth our emotional involvement.
The resulting film is a massive endeavor, but director David Yates knows the territory, having helmed the final four Harry Potter entries. As the first installment of what promises to be a sprawling new epic, our debut glimpse of Fantastic Beasts is a lot of fun.
The setting is 1926 New York, just as Newt disembarks from a luxury liner in order to visit the United States for the first time. He’s nearing the end of a global excursion to research and rescue magical creatures, while simultaneously pleading their cause to fellow mages more apt to eradicate first, and ask questions later. (This welcome, pro-species environmental message runs throughout the film, its relevance to current human behavior impossible to ignore.)
Many of these critters are safeguarded in the massive hidden dimension tucked away in Scamander’s deceptively nondescript leather case. Alas, his arrival is ill-timed, occurring just as New York is under siege by a mysterious, building-leveling whatzit that threatens to expose the city’s underground wizarding community to No-Majs (the American term for non-magical Muggles).
The question is whether this wanton destruction is the work of Gellert Grindelwald, a powerful dark wizard who has been wreaking havoc in Europe. Whatever the cause, the incidents are fueling dire, leaflet-distributed warnings from fanatics such as Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society. In public, she’s a hard-working caregiver who feeds and shelters orphan children such as Creedence (Ezra Miller), Chastity (Jenn Murray) and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove).
In reality, Barebone is stern and vehemently anti-magic, and Morton’s performance makes her the stuff of Dickensian nightmares.
None of which Newt realizes, as he hits New York’s streets for the first time, quietly ignoring MACUSA edicts that strictly prohibit the importation of magical beasts. Alas, one of his critters escapes — the mischievous, duck-billed Niffler, which can’t resist snatching shiny objects — and sets off a chain of events that envelops the wholly ordinary Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who hopes to get a bank loan in order to open a bakery.
This even greater breach of protocol is witnessed by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted MACUSA investigator seeking to restore her reputation; she hopes to apprehend Newt and bring him to the attention of the imperious, by-the-book Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
Alas, before Tina can act — thanks to an accidental suitcase swap worthy of What’s Up Doc — Jacob winds up with Newt’s beast-laden luggage. After which ... well ... things get a lot more complicated.
And colorful. And fantastic.
The wildly imaginative creatures range from the rhinocerous-esque Erumpent — regrettably in heat, and hankering for love — to the diminutive Pickett, one of many twig-like Bowtruckles. (Pickett has attachment issues, and prefers Newt’s pocket to the company of his fellow Bowtruckles.)
Then there’s the silver-haired Demiguise, a mid-sized primate with huge, saucer eyes, which can become invisible at will; and the winged, serpentine Occamy, with “choranaptyxic” abilities that allow it to grow or shrink to fit available space ... which can become a problem, in a large room.
These distinctive critters — and others — are colorful and fascinating in their own right, but they truly come alive thanks to the persuasive credibility of Redmayne’s interactions with them. Newt obviously admires, adores and respects every one of these beasts, and his passion can be heartbreaking, particularly when he fears that one of them is in peril.
Fogler, in contrast, becomes the comic victim of numerous creature attentions and assaults. These encounters are amusing enough; even funnier are Jacob’s wide-eyed, double-take reactions to the wand-wielding abilities that Newt and Tina take for granted. The Harry Potter films never spent much time confounding unsuspecting Muggles — aside from Harry’s loathed Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, and they were far from sympathetic — and Fogler is a hoot, as Jacob goes slack-jawed over each new affront to physical laws and his sensibilities.
Waterston’s scrupulously conscientious Tina is a playful contrast to Newt’s impulsive disregard for propriety. It’s clear that she’ll eventually become more ally than adversary, and Waterston’s exasperated expressions deftly convey her arrow-straight character’s resistance to change. Alison Sudol also is a hoot as Tina’s flirty sister, Queenie, who is immediately attracted to Jacob, as a No-Maj “novelty” that she hasn’t ever experienced.
Jon Voight pops up as newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr., who hopes to propel elder son Henry Jr. (Josh Cowdery) into political fame; younger son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) is an under-scripted, oddly superfluous character. (Perhaps Rowling has plans for him in future installments.)
Ron Perlman’s voice is about all that can be recognized, in his brief appearance as 4-foot-tall Gnarlak, the goblin who runs The Blind Pig, an underground speakeasy for less reputable members of the wizarding community.
The tech credits are terrific, with production designer Stuart Craig re-creating pre-economic-crash New York City, and costume designer Colleen Atwood having great fun with all the flapper-era outfits. Special effects supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz clearly had a lot on their plates, and rose to the occasion spectacularly.
James Newton Howard’s lively score also subtly evokes Harry Potter’s orchestral palette, complete with a nod to John Williams’ iconic themes.
Monday evening’s preview audience greeted the conclusion of Fantastic Beasts with well-earned cheers and applause. Given Warner Bros.’ plan to release each new installment at two-year intervals, Rowling certainly will be busy for the next decade.
Aren’t we lucky?