Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
By Matthew Huntley
November 28, 2016
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a prequel of sorts to the Harry Potter films and, fortunately for viewers, every bit as delightful. It continues the trend whereby these films always have something going on - either visually or narratively, or both - and we can't help but get swept up by their energy and whimsy, often forgetting that someone, in this case writer J.K. Rowling, actually conjured up these ideas. Like the best fantasy tales, Fantastic Beasts forces us to abandon all disbelief and simply surrender to its magical world.
In the time-honored tradition of the Harry Potter universe, an evil wizard named Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose and has ambitions, like all Dark Lords, it seems, to bring members of the non-magical community, deemed “No-Majs,” to justice for their persecution of wizards and witches. Could Grindelwald be linked to the recent string of destructive, unexplained phenomena happening in New York City, what one witness describes as, “a dark wind with white eyes,” which topples buildings and neighborhoods?
That's one of the questions Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a plucky but prone-to-trouble wizard out of Hogwarts, eventually sets out to answer. He arrives in New York City from London in 1926 with a suitcase full of magical creatures, which he believes are misunderstood and have been unfairly treated and ostracized. He's writing a textbook about them and feels compelled to provide the monsters sanctuary, and in fact one of the main reasons for his visit to the States is to set free a thunderbird named Frank in the deserts of Arizona. However, once Newt learns more about the war brewing between Majs and No-Majs, not to mention the inexplicable dark force tearing up Manhattan, he acquires an even greater purpose.
Upon his arrival, Newt passes by an organized, anti-Maj demonstration headed by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who runs a somewhat twisted orphanage and preaches about the dangers of wizards and witches who are secretly living among them. She believes they're responsible for the recent violent incidents and seeks the help of a powerful newspaper mogul named Shaw (Jon Voight) and his son, Henry (Josh Cowdery), a U.S. Senator, so that they might use their influence to unearth, capture and eventually destroy all magic practitioners.
Meanwhile, Newt's series of misadventures begin when one of his creatures, a niffler, which resembles a furry mole and that's fascinated by money and jewels, escapes from his suitcase in front of a bank. He also loses one of his occamy eggs (an occamy is a snake-like dragon with wings that grows or shrinks to fit any available space), which ends up in the possession of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a friendly, stocky fellow who dreams of opening a bakery. To recover his creatures, Newt is forced to harness his wizardry, and this catches the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted agent, or auror, who works for the Magic Congress of the U.S.A. She arrests Newt for using magic in public and potentially endangering other wizards and witches, but the president of MACUSA, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), dismisses the case.
Newt and his case do, however, capture the attention of Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking auror and director at MACUSA who secretly meets with Credence (Ezra Miller), the troubled son of Mary Lou Barebone who thinks that if he helps Graves track down an Obscurus, Graves will rescue him from Barebone's clutches and abuse. An Obscurus, we learn, is a sinister force that manifests as a result of a wizard or witch, typically a child, withholding his or her abilities, resulting in their powers turning dark. The reason they abstain from using their powers in the first place is to avoid detection and persecution.
Graves senses an Obscurus hiding in Newt's case and what he plans on doing with it is one driving forces of the story, which, like all Harry Potter plots, becomes more clever, tricky and layered as it progresses. And also like its brethren, Beasts doesn't skimp on its resources - the filmmakers leverage their budget to full effect with outstanding production design, photography, special effects and costumes. Visually, the film may not be anything we haven't seen before, but it's of the utmost quality.
But all this wouldn't matter so much if the characters themselves weren't so beguiling. The performances by the actors are lively, quirky and generate some surprisingly strong emotion, especially with regards to the friendship that forms between Newt and Kowalski and the unspoken romances that develop between Newt and Porpentina and Kowalski and Porpentina's sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Kowalski and Queenie's relationship is particularly sweet and funny because Queenie is a legilimens, which means she can read minds, and I liked the way she forgives Kowalski for having romantic “thoughts” about her. Smaller moments such as these prevent the characters from getting overshadowed by the complex plot, and they become people we really care about, which is why I think it's possible for a non-Harry “Harry Potter” series to succeed and, who knows, spawn several other related franchises that function as superb, escapist entertainment.
Fantastic Beasts does start to run out of gas toward the end, and there are one too many elongated denouements, but the movie overall is very pleasing and energetic. This shouldn't surprise anyone given that the filmmakers, including director David Yates, are part of the same team that brought us many of the Harry Potter films, which weren't always perfect but were nevertheless high-spirited, cohesive and unpredictable. So, too, is Beasts, which tells an enchanting story that keeps us on our toes and gets us to invest emotionally in the characters, be they Maj or No-Maj.