J. K. Rowling is back with a wizard world tale over which she has complete control — a diverting period adventure starring Eddie Redmayne and scores of fanciful magic creatures that belong on an endangered species list. Yep, it’s 2+plus hours of CGI illusions — in glorious 3-D for those so equipped, and Ms. Rowling has populated it with charming, personable actors. “You know — for adults.”
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
2016 / Color / 2:40 widescreen /133 min. / Street Date March 28, 2017 / 3-D 44.95; Blu-ray & DVD 35.99
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, Josh Cowdery, Dan Hedaya, Johnny Depp. .
Cinematography: Philippe Rouselot
Film Editor: Mark Day
Original Music: James Newton Howard
Written by J. K. Rowling
Produced by J.K. Rowling, Lionel Wigram
Directed by David Yates
“And lo, the magical super-franchise of Harry Potter doth continue.” In 2001 J.K. Rowling spun off two books from the Potter world of imagination, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quiddich Through the Ages. When the official Potter series came to a close several years ago Ms. Rowling moved on to become the screenwriter of a new series of Fantastic Beasts pictures. As her book has no narrative story, the 2016 feature film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is something new for Harry Potter fans. Assuming that no details were leaked, it was the first time a J.K. Rowling movie hit the screens in which the audience didn’t already know what is going to happen.
Face it, massive movie franchises are often mishandled, so it’s a pleasure to report that this first Fantastic Beasts movie engages the interest and has charms of its own. It takes place several generations before Harry Potter’s time, in a 1920s New York city presumably recreated from scratch, like the CGI period New York generated for the 2005 King Kong remake. The eccentric ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a special suitcase that contains an entire magic menagerie. It also contains a vast animal habitat — climbing into the suitcase leads to a large complex of barns and a seemingly endless realm for the magic beasties to live and play. As Newt’s suitcase has a faulty latch, several of the oddball animals get loose, including a frisky blue platypus-thing called a ‘Niffler’ which proceeds to steal everything shiny it can get its paws on.
Newt is soon tangled up in supernatural politics. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is the local secret governing body of wizards; it’s trying to locate and neutralize a renegade wizard named Gellert Grindelwald, who wants to bring wizarding out into the open and wage war on the Muggles — the non-wizard population. Yank wizards use the alternate word ‘No-Maj.’ Newt’s mischievous creatures cause problems that he must cover up by erasing No-Maj memories with his wand. MACUSA considers him a loose cannon, and worse, a foreigner. They have an unenlightened view of magical creatures, and don’t understand Newt’s desire to preserve and protect them. Most of the animals are small and inoffensive, but even the largest are benign, and dangerous only when threatened.
The eccentric, somewhat pixie-like Newt makes friends with Tina (Katherine Waterston of Inherent Vice), a demoted auror (Aurors are officials charged with policing wizards that don’t follow the rules). He also befriends the No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler of TV’s The Goldbergs), a nice guy who just wants to open a bakery. Jacob is dazzled by the wizarding magic he witnesses, and must be reminded that his memory will have to be erased. Part of Jacob’s delight is meeting Tina’s roommate Queenie (singer-writer Alison Sudol), a ditzy but hypersensitive ‘Legilimens’ (aw, look it up already). Queenie takes an immediate interest in Jacob, despite the fact that fraternizing between wizards and No-Majes is strictly verboten.
Most of the film’s action sees the impish Newt chasing a seemingly endless variety of magical creatures around New York — he loves and protects them, but his containment strategies need work. The tone is light and amusing, with the escaped critters being a troublesome variation on say, the mischievous spooks of Ghostbusters. The variety of magical creatures seems inexhaustible — they range from inoffensive little animals to a giant four-winged Thunderbird. A tiny blue snake swells or shrinks to whatever proportions will fill the space in which it finds itself. Most of the fantastic beasts have silly names — that blue platypus Niffler is a wonderful little thief that plays petty pickpocket games when not breaking into banks and jewelry stores. Newt is run ragged chasing the Niffler & its cohorts, and magically reconstituting things they’ve broken. To keep everything on the hush-hush, he must erase scores of Muggle memories.
Things become even darker when we meet Mary Lou Barebones (Samantha Morton), the operator of a Dickens-like orphanage-sweatshop dedicated to rooting out evil witches. Her organization The New Salem Philanthropic Society vows death to all witches, but she devotes much of her energy to the physical abuse of the children in her care. For reasons unknown, MACUSA’s high-ranking director of security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is trying to locate one of Barebones’ children, and has cruelly enlisted a helper from her ranks, Mary Lou’s son Credence (Ezra Miller). Emotionally crippled by his mother’s beatings, Credence resists helping Graves, but isn’t sure why.
As it turns out, Graves is trying to locate the story’s leading plot element, a thing called an Obscurus. Sort of a whirlwind of negative energy released by personal frustration and injustice, an Obscurus is causing major havoc in the Manhattan streets, and in one attack, kills a Mayoral candidate, the son of a prominent publisher (Jon Voight). Too many No-Majes have witnessed the Obscurus’ destruction– and it threatens to bring wizarding out into the open. MACUSA’s law enforcement is hopelessly inconsistent and too easily swayed by fear. Interestingly, the Obscurus allows Rowling to make a statement about the current U.S. reaction to domestic terrorism. In a dark turn of events, Scamander is actually slated for execution because he is a convenient (and pointedly foreign) scapegoat for MACUSA’s unidentified problem.
MACUSA doesn’t know what an Obscurus is — they think it’s something some Dark Wizard terrorist cooked up and they’re further afraid that it might be Grindelwald’s doing. As they really don’t want the attacks to be Grindelwald’s doing, they jump at the chance to pin the chaos on the critters of the hapless foreigner Scamander. In other words, it’s another Rowling jab at American isolationism in response to the threat of terror.
Although this whirlwind monster is their first concern, MACUSA is indeed searching for Grindelwald, who has already terrorized Europe quite a bit. Early on, the movie takes an unexpected path for fan and lay audiences alike. Fans recognize the talisman Graves gives to Credence as the sign of the Deathly Hallows, a major plot element in the HP series. It connects Graves directly to Grindelwald, the most infamous Evil Wizard in history pre-Voldemort. Grindelwald is a magical supremacist who rises to power in Europe in a few years and is defeated in 1945 by Harry Potter’s future schoolmaster Dumbledore. Fans aware of the HP back story know that we are in effect watching a potential wizarding Hitler running around NYC hoping to secure for himself a weapon of mass destruction. Non-fans are pretty much completely in the dark. For them Graves is a randomly corrupt police official whose larger villainy is given a weak Scooby-Doo reveal at the end.
Despite all the negative waves let loose, the film’s tone is not oppressive. The business with Mary Lou’s terrorized child slaves is kept from growing too severe. The later big- scale jeopardy and destruction scenes aren’t too scary, and rather fascinating to watch… the CGI animation of New York being ripped to shreds (and then re-combobulated before our eyes) is as much fun as all those fantastic, Yokai– like crazy creatures.
The task given most of the actors is to be personable participants in a fast paced creature hunt. The ubiquitous star Eddie Redmayne has found a solid franchise character — we’re always happy when a good actor avoids being co-opted by the Marvel universe. His Newt Scamander has a constant twinkle in his eye, and when cavorting in his Brit wardrobe on the New York Streets, seems quite a bit like the ’60s musical star Tommy Steele. Recently studying Finian’s Rainbow prompts this comparison. Ms. Rowling chooses well — Redmayne’s Scamander is a non-violent, pro-environmental wizard and a solid role model.
As a Rowling show has little need of name star-power, most roles are cast with experienced, expressive actors that make vibrant impressions. Katherine Waterston is an obvious future girlfriend for Newt, while Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler comprise such an adorable couple that we hope they return in future installments. Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell are certainly effective, while actress Carmen Ejogo embodies the perpetually piqued head of MACUSA, Seraphina Picquery. Stuck in a somewhat muffled subplot, Jon Voight and Josh Cowdery are the stuffy publisher and his son, the creep politician.
Buried in the enormous cast is Dan Hedaya, while good effects transform Ron Perlman into a particularly impressive, nasty little Goblin gangster, whose lair is a downstairs speakeasy. Goblins are apparently a disenfranchised, marginalized magical race. One other big name actor is in for only one shot, and will clearly feature more prominently later on. I also wish to mention the tiny role of actor Paul Birchard, because he is the brother of Robert S. Birchard, a friend who passed away last year.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a happy special effects / CGI-fest assembled with good taste and good storytelling instincts (minus a couple of puzzling sub-plots). Director David Yates helmed the last several Harry Potter outings and performs well on this fully Rowling-organized show. Despite the grand scale of things we always feel centered on the winning personalities before us. They’re more important than the special effects, but those don’t disappoint either. Most of the fantastic beasties are biologically credible, clever, and fun just to look at. The armies of pixel manipulators that lend them life have taken care to give them interesting textures, from the slimy Sluggoth-faced buffalo to the feathery four-winged Thunderbird… to the interesting scales of that expanding snake thing (forgive me for not including their fanciful names).
The film’s regenerated ‘twenties-era New York is also a delight, with enough detail to make the settings convincing, but not so much that we overload on sensory information. Even the big action scenes don’t cause headaches with CGI overkill. The final rampage of the Obscurus is quite a spectacle — it’s as if Pigpen’s cloud of dust has joined with the whirling Tasmanian Devil, An engine of destruction, it smashes pieces off buildings and twists the elevated railroad into knots. Another saving grace is that the show is not ‘militarized’ like so much of millennial fantasy. The survival of the planet is not at stake, and armed aggression is not seen as a solution to problems. (Thanks to Tim Lucas for that insight as regards Legendary’s new King Kong movie.)
Remember how when Christopher Reeve’s Superman turned back time to undo destruction, it felt like a cheat? That’s a routine Standing Operating Procedure for Newt Scamander, and J.K. Rowling gets away with it. In this franchise universe, selectively undoing seemingly final events doesn’t make us cry foul. The show is sufficiently special to have meaning of its own, and operates as something separate from the older Harry Potter movies.
One of the things fans liked so much about the HP books and movies is that each installment becomes more adult and takes on more adult themes as the characters age, culminating with themes of death/resurrection and forgiving your heroes for being imperfect, while accepting that your enemies are also human beings deserving of a chance at redemption. We’ll have to see in what direction the ‘Newt Scamander’ movie series chooses to go… set ninety years ago, it’s something of a Millennial, Age of Terror take on wizarding.
A technical assist on this article came from correspondent Rebeca Erickson.
J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.’s 3-D Blu-ray of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is quite a show. Even at a full 133 minutes, it doesn’t wear one out. Although it’s the first of a planned three (or five?) films, we don’t feel that we’re watching just another brick in the wall of a larger franchise, a promo for twenty other pictures to follow. The show is also being offered in a Blu-ray- plus DVD combo. Both incarnations carry an HD digital download code. If such is your desire, you can thumb your nose at David Lynch and watch it on a tiny cell phone.
The picture is consistently handsome, with rich color and sparkling detail. The jumpin’ critters are so interesting that James Newton Howard’s music might not be noticed the first time around. Even without an attempt at a ‘twenties atmosphere, the music score is pretty good. So many new soundtracks are just forgettable… are melodies now considered passé?
On the other hand, everybody’s using 3-D well now… I don’t know how the picture looked in theaters but here with passive home theater 3-D I felt comfortably nested in a deep visual space. Only occasionally will something fly in our faces, as do a number of winged creatures and interesting bugs. During the massive climactic destruction-recreation of New York, the 3-D is quite a spectacle.
The show comes with a featurette docu about the new franchise ‘before Harry Potter,’ a score of character vignette featurettes, and more featurettes on the creatures. Okay, here are some names: Erumpent, Bowtruckle, Occamy and Demiguise. I’ll have to see it again to nail down Newt’s delightful little green twig man beastie, the one that can pick locks.
Oops, even more featurettes carry 360° views of some of the more elaborate sets, and the extras finish off with eleven deleted scenes.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
3-D Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson