Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Collin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, and Ezra Miller
Runtime: 133 minutes
When it comes to world building for a story, be it in novels or movies, it’s almost more depressing when the world is alive and vivid because you just know that there are so many more stories than what you’re seeing. Great worlds that come to mind are those of Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth (where The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books/films took place) and the world of Harry Potter. In the case of Star Wars, books and animation have told some outlying stories outside of the saga films, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will start the films that will do that as well. J.R.R. Tolkien explored Middle Earth and its history in many books outside The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (and as interesting as they are, many are either unfinished or dryer than a buked of sand, so I hope Peter Jackson doesn’t try to adapt them). Now J.K. Rowling has stepped into the world of movies to write stories about a man mentioned in her Harry Potter novels as a textbook author (titled, incidentally, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and personal hero to Hagrid.
Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a wizard in the 1920s who scours the globe looking for rare magical creatures and learning how to care for them. He’s newly arrived in New York City and almost instantly drawn into a kerfuffle because one of the creatures he totes around in his bigger-on-the-inside magical suitcase has gotten out due to a faulty lock. This creature is keen on shiny things, which is good for it that it escaped into a bank. Newt runs into (literally) Kowalski (Dan Fogler), causing that lock to become undone. Kowalski becomes an unwitting participant in the apprehension of the creature, witnessing magic for the first time, as he is a muggle (or ‘no-mag’ as they are called here in the States). Newt is pursued and apprehended by Tina (Katherine Waterston), a former auror who is trying to get back into magical law enforcement. She’s brushed off by the higher-ups, including Graves (Collin Farrell), who is either a chief investigator or Head of Magical Law Enforcement (his title is never really given). Newt is released and finds Kowalski again and with the help of Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), try to round up the magical creatures that have escaped his case in an effort to clear his and their names. Newt is at risk of being jailed because there is an invisible force attacking magical and non-magical persons alike. There is also a subplot with an anti-magic crusader Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) who takes in orphans including Credence (Ezra Miller, who will play Barry Allen/The Flash in the upcoming Justice League film, as well as The Flash in 2018).
What Rowling does here, in her first screenplay, is to expand on the world of Harry Potter and show us the world of adult witches and wizards, instead of children learning their first levitation charm. She fleshes out her characters reasonably well, though some of the side players are more one-note. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels all made better movies than books because of the inherently cinematic and visual style she was attempting, so her making the jump to screenwriting was natural. It’s also liberating for her and any other screenwriters who end up writing the series (there are four more planned after this one) because they won’t be tied to source material. The script is not without its troubles, though. It’s a bit unfocused and wedges in the anti-magic subplot in an effort to make a standard big bad to fight at the end. The story really shines when Newt is caring for his creatures and working with Kowalski, Tina and Queenie to round up the missing ones. That could have been an entertaining entry into the series without the battle that feels tacked on and tired.
David Yates is back for his now fourth entry in the Harry Potter franchise (if you count Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as one film, as I do). Yates has done marvelous things with this franchise, guiding it into darker realms when he took over with the fifth installment Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He’s now very comfortable in this world and it shows, as he’s able to wrangle the special effects and bring out some very good performances from all of the actors. He kept his pacing tight, though some of the picture is a little muddled (that could have just been the post-converted 3D, though).
Shining brightly throughout the picture is Redmayne. Up to this point, his acting had felt very technical and measured, without much heart and with lots of calculation. Here, he relaxes and lets the character of Newt Scamander speak through him (seemingly informed to a large degree by Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor from Doctor Who). This was the first performance of his that I didn’t see the wheels turning in his head, dictating the next move or emotional grab. All of the supporting actors are good, but it’s Fogler’s Kowalski that steals hearts. He’s the only central character that is not inclined to magic and the wonderment in his eyes is fantastic. Fogler also plays Kowalski very gently and a natural in caring for the magical beasts.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them brings back the wonder and joy of the wizarding world that was necessarily lost as the Harry Potter series got darker. It’s hard to be amazed by magic when there’s a man actively trying to kill a child. This film resets that and though the characters don’t know what kind of evil awaits their world, we in the audience do, and that makes this all the more fun and pleasant.