Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I'm a bit over fantasy movies by and large. Every second film these days seems to be about fantasy or mindless superheroes. Hollywood is stuck in a rut. However, there are exceptions.
One such exception is JK Rowling. I read Rowling's "Harry Potter" books, saw all the movies, and apart from the last one or two, enjoyed them thoroughly. So, when "Fantastic Beasts" came out recently, I was more than happy to go along and see what Rowling has come up with now. Overall, I wasn't disappointed.
"Fantastic Beasts", written and co-produced by Rowling, is really a prequel to the Harry Potter saga by some 70 years. Readers of the Potter books may remember that a standard Hogwarts textbook was "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" by Newt Scamander. Well, this new film is about the early Newt Scamander, before he became a famous textbook writer. Playing the role delightfully, with a mixture of tousled boyhood innocence and passion for beasts magical, is the British actor Eddie Redmayne. He is good.
Scamander arrives in New York City in the 1920s, carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures. Scamander, himself a wizard, is completing a research trip. He accidentally swaps suitcases with Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler), a jovial New Yorker who is not magical, but a "muggle" (known in America as a "no-maj"), ie, an ordinary person. Some of Scamander's creatures escape and he must recapture them with willing help from Kowalski. Along the way, he becomes involved with New York City's magical community who, in the shape of wizards Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), are suspicious of Scamander as an unregistered foreign wizard. Tina and her sister Queenie (played to perfection by the deliciously cute Alison Sudol) befriend Scamander, while Queenie, a magical, falls for Kowalski, a no-maj, something forbidden by the American magical community. The city is racked by strange supernatural events which cause widespread destruction. The evil wizard Grindelwald (little more than a cameo by Johnny Depp) is lurking in the wings, and the New York magicals are afraid all the disruption will cause war between the magical and non-magical communities in the city. Against this backdrop, Scamander and friends try to recapture his lost beasts.
At times, the plot can become a little confusing. However, keep your eye on the major characters, don't worry too much about confusing subplots, enjoy the special effects, and you'll be fine.
David Yates directs with flair and relative economy – the movie is only about 2 1/4 hours long – the acting from just about everyone is, at the least, workmanlike, and sometimes excellent, and the special effects – especially the fantastic beasts themselves – are great. I particularly liked Scamander's four-winged eagle, or Thunderbird. Redmayne is the perfect Scamander, Fogler is just right as Kowalski, the friendly no-maj who willingly involves himself in all the magic, and Sudol as Queenie is great. Colin Farrell, as Graves, I found less convincing. Farrell is a fine actor, but here he plays a character with a very dark side. Farrell does not look evil, he looks too friendly, and doesn't quite gel as a hard, ruthless wizard. Alan Rickman would have been so much better; sadly he is no longer with us, so couldn't oblige.
The movie looks and feels good. The CGI, as you would expect, is well done. I liked the way the movie makers re-created New York City with a 1920s look and atmosphere. Although it is a colour film, it is suffused with a slight sepia tint that gives the appearance of newsreel footage from the 1920s and 1930s. Rowling's idea of supernatural forces running amok in New York is perhaps a little too reminiscent of the "Ghostbusters" films, but, hey, if you want to create a magical movie franchise specifically for the American market, where else but NYC would you set it?
This time, Rowling's supernatural world is an adult one. Although Hogwarts and Albus Dumbledore are actually referenced in the story, there is hardly a child character in sight and definitely no schools. Still, some themes from the Harry Potter sagas are repeated: the idea of two parallel worlds, the ordinary and the magical; the idea that characters can move freely between the two; social and romantic interaction between muggles and magicals; and an evil super wizard lurking in the background.
Although the story is quite nicely tied off at the end, there are enough strands to suggest sequels are afoot. Indeed, the author is on record as saying she plans several more "fantastic beasts" movies. I hope Redmayne is available to reprise Scamander in the future. He is so right for the character. While there is generally too much fantasy around in Hollywood at the moment, I am happy to see more of Rowling's fantastic beasts.
My star rating for this film, out of five: * * * *