Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is J.K. Rowling through and through, and that’s a very good thing.
Returning audiences to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but in a new time and place, the film provides just enough of the elements that most audiences love about Rowling’s stories, while opening things up with new characters, tensions and intrigue.
Is it a perfect film? No. It’s a very good start, however, especially since it’s clear this won’t be the last film made using this setting and characters.
What’s it about?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place entirely in 1926 New York. Yes, that’s right — it’s in America!
It’s not quite the good ol’ U.S.A. audiences live in, of course. There are wizards living among the muggles, or “no-majs”, as the Yanks refer to them.
In America, wizards go to greater lengths to hide their existence from non-magical folk, and for good reason. A group of fanatics calling themselves “Second Salemers” works not only to expose wizards, but also to have them publicly burned, as they were in the past.
Into these tense times of prejudice and suspicion comes English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Even among wizards, Newt is an oddball. A passionate “magizoologist”, he takes care of magical creatures. He also strives to educate other wizards about them so they aren’t killed needlessly.
Fresh off the boat and ignorant of the politics of America’s Wizarding World, Newt quickly gets himself into trouble. A number of the magical creatures in his care accidentally get loose in the city, and in the course of tracking them, he reveals his abilities in front of a no-maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).
With help from Jacob, disgraced magical investigator Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt sets out to bring his creatures home. But they’ll have to contend with something else magically afoot in New York’s streets, something that’s killing no-majs.
Paranoid extremist groups spreading fear and half-truths? Secret societies and shadowy government agencies bent on keeping their existences safe and secure? An America on the brink of war with itself?
Hard to believe it’s not post-election 2016, isn’t it?
Rowling at the top of her game
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them represents a first in Wizarding World cinema. The screenplay here comes directly from Rowling herself, whereas Steve Kloves adapted her novels for the screen in the earlier films.
Set to rest any doubts that Rowling could write for the screen, muggles. Fantastic Beasts is full of the intricate plotting and little quirks of character that made the Potter stories so entrancing. It’s also chock full of seeds for future stories, and has a few “Easter Eggs” for longtime Hogwarts devotees longing for connection to the world established in the earlier films.
In all fairness, all that does make for some minor pacing issues in the film. At two hours and 13 minutes, Fantastic Beasts runs long, and screenplay-wise, it could be a tighter film without all that sequel-seeding.
Remarkably, however, the film rarely drags. There’s just too much to delight in, between the interactions of the well-crafted characters to the splendid visuals built around all those incredible creatures.
A new cast to fall in love with
Arguably, the toughest task facing Fantastic Beasts is delivering a cast of characters as compelling as those in the previous saga. After all, Harry, Hermione, the Weasleys, Dumbledore and Hogwarts are what drew readers back to the books and audiences back to the films time and again, right?
To do this, director David Yates, who directed the last four Potter films, assembles a hugely talented cast. Redmayne is charmingly awkward as Newt, the ‘Englishman in New York’ who is more at ease with his creatures than with people. He is hard to understand at times — Newt is soft-spoken and tends to mumble. But by the end he’s sure to win audiences over with the compassion and gentle nature Redmayne endows him with.
Other standouts in the cast include Tony-award winning Dan Fogler and Katherine Waterston. Though Newt is unquestionably the hero of Fantastic Beasts, Fogler’s Jacob and his wonder at the world he glimpses for the first time allows for audiences to fall in love with it along with him. His journey is as important to the film’s drama as Newt’s, and carries much of the film’s emotion.
As for Waterston, she proves yet again that she’s one of Hollywood’s most versatile young performers. Compare her work here with previous turns in Steve Jobs and Inherent Vice and its tough to deny her chameleon-like ability to disappear into roles. She’s very good here, and the role has potential for her to be even better down the road.
Production design, costumes sparkle
Production and costume design also deserve every possible accolade in Fantastic Beasts. The film’s look — call it “spellcrafters n’ speakeasies” — is inspired in every frame.
What’s ingenious here is just how much the look of everything makes sense, both as a period piece and a story set in the Wizarding World. Exteriors shots show a vintage New York that’s easily recognizable. But the little details added, the touches of magic everywhere, transform that setting into something altogether new and wonderous.
The costumes, meanwhile, all Great Gatsby meets Ministry of Magic, are a visual delight in and of themselves. Don’t be surprised if the work here garners mention in the Oscar conversation come Spring.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another one of those films where for some audiences seeing it is a foregone conclusion. If you loved Rowling’s books and the films based upon them, of course you’re going to see this film.
However, this is still a sweet, romantic flight of fantasy worth enjoying, even if you know nothing about Harry Potter. The visuals are imaginative and the characters are endearing. Most importantly, the story leaves you with the promise of more adventure on the horizon.
What more can anyone ask from a fantasy film?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, and Colin Farrell. Directed by David Yates.
Running Time: 133 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence.