Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directed by David Yates. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller. (2016, PG-13, 133 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Nov. 18, 2016
Throughout the history of storytelling, there has always been something irresistible about the prospect of a secret world right under our nose. A hidden universe suddenly exposed to us, full of wonder and purpose just inside that wardrobe, or activated by that red pill, or that first hurried trip to King’s Cross Platform 9 ¾. These stories hit that primal urge of reality being something more transcendent than what we thought, and they can go a long way in the edification department (see: religion). Arguably the reigning god in that territory for the last 20 years, J.K. Rowling has created an impressive and obsessive universe of wizards, monsters, and the Boy Who Lived. And while Harry Potter’s story may be over (yeah, right), Rowling has scripted Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based on a fake textbook she penned for charity back in 2001, detailing the many curious and dangerous creatures in the Potterverse.
That book was “written” by Newt Scamander (Redmayne). As we open in New York City 1926, Newt has just arrived from overseas to ostensibly free one beast while acquiring another. He carries with him a tattered suitcase, one with a secret, as it’s revealed to be a world in and of itself, a preserve for the creatures he’s collected (think Hermione’s handbag, but with accommodations and a view). Scamander inadvertently lets a few of the beasts loose in a well-choreographed opening sequence, finds a friend in budding baker and no-maj (American for muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), and catches the eye of mid-level auror Porpentina Goldstein (Waterston). Porpentina arrests Scamander for illegally bringing in these beasts, and he goes up against security head Percival Graves (Farrell). But as these things go, bigger threats reveal themselves, especially in the form of a chaotic and malevolent parasitical entity that is wreaking havoc in the city. Oh, and the famous Dark Arts wizard (and Dumbledore classmate/nemesis) Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose.
If you’re still with me, then good. Because while Fantastic Beasts suffers from some symptoms we’ve basically taken as par for the course in recent high-profile Hollywood spectacles: too many set-pieces, various plotlines stitched together like a quilt, and one-note supporting roles (pretty sure Jon Voight – playing a newspaper mogul – is just there to introduce himself for subsequent entries), it is also really fun. The backdrop of New York City in the Twenties is a nice change of pace from castles and countrysides (a trip to a magical speakeasy comes to mind), and while I’ve been on the fence for so long about Redmayne that I’m chafing, he won me over with his take on the absent-minded professor schtick. Rowling’s recurring themes (traumatizing childhoods, complacent governments, fascism) are present, and here used to good effect. Her world-building skills sometimes clash with director Yates’ need to move on to the next catastrophe, but those looking for a charming blockbuster (not to mention a welcome dive back into Rowling’s world), here is where to find it.