Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
While the “Harry Potter” film franchise still holds up really well with me as a great fantasy series and hero’s story, I’ll admit to being reticent about returning to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world with a film (the first of five, supposedly) inspired by her 2001 book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Even with David Yates, who guided the “Harry Potter” series through its final four installments, at the helm, would it be the same without Harry, Ron and Hermione to ground us emotionally? Of course, the answer to that is no, but after seeing the film, that’s not so much a bad thing as a perfectly logical one that opens up new areas, and possibilities, within the universe Rowling has created. Think of it like the forthcoming “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”- there is a possibility for rich storytelling without a Skywalker at the center of it. The universe is a compelling one- let’s look further into it.
As the main character, Newt Scamander (who “wrote” the textbook-like Fantastic Beasts), Eddie Redmayne is much more at home in this role than he was his over-the-top villain in “Jupiter Ascending.” Not terribly unlike his professor Stephen Hawking from “The Theory of Everything,” Scamander is a brilliant student of his field, which in this case, is magical creatures. He has a briefcase filled with them as he lands in New York City in the late 1920s, which is not necessarily a good thing. Due to circumstances in the United States, the ownership of magical beasts is strictly forbidden, and at the time, magical folks are not to display their power in front of non-mags (the American term for muggles). The wizard world and human world are not to mix, even in a romantic context. Of course, once Scamander arrives in New York, there’s a lot of mixing and chaos that transpires, as he inadvertently exposes the human world to his titular beasts when several of them escape at a bank where a simple man named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is trying to get a bank loan. Before he can obliviate Kowalski’s memory, however, Newt is discovered by Porpentina Goldstein (Tina for short, and played by Katherine Waterston), an investigator for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), the governing body of the wizard world in America, and he must find his charges before they reek havoc in a New York that is fearful of the idea of witches and wizards roaming around.
That is the story of this first film in a nutshell. Rowling deals with archetypes and McGuffins that kick the story into motion, and send the characters into individual journeys to see where they end up. It was true with the “Harry Potter” series, and it’s true here, as well. We are shown more of what the world outside of Hogwarts looks like in Rowling’s universe, and one of the things I enjoy most about “Fantastic Beasts” is how she not only comments on America’s history of intolerance towards those who are different from us, but also how different Americans look at her world vs. how the rest of the world sees wizards. (Case in point, did you remember that the first Harry Potter book was titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone everywhere but here?) The characters and the America in Rowling’s universe feels a bit, shall we say, dumbed down compared to how people operated in Harry’s story in England, but that isn’t meant to be a criticism for this simple fact- the characters in the film are not dumb. They just don’t see the magical world the same way their British counterparts do. Rowling could have easily just made every American in the film a dunderhead and cashed a paycheck, but she respects her world, and the characters that populate it, too much. Great social commentary does not come easily, and Rowling has always had a deft voice in that respect. Kowalski may seem like a caricature at the start, but he’s actually one of the most endearing parts about the film, and Fogler (“Balls of Fury,” “Fanboys”) matches Redmayne beat-for-beat with a funny, warm performance that makes us want to see where Rowling will take his character in later installments, especially with a potential love story with Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), on the horizon. The film has plenty of compelling characters to watch for, from Colin Farrell’s straight-faced investigator Graves to Samantha Morton’s fear-mongering witch-hater Mary Lou to Ezra Miller’s morose Credence, who was adopted by Mary Lou with his sisters, to Jon Voight as a politician’s newspaper-running father who feels like a possible Hearst-type mover and shaker. When one more character is revealed at the end, in true Rowling fashion, we are left with a compelling base to work with for the proposed future films in this run in the wizarding world. So long as Yates, whose visual flair for Rowling’s universe has only grown more assured and imaginative over now five films, remains at the helm, I can safely say they’ll continue to get support from me in this magical endeavor.