Review – Fantastic Beasts (And Where To Find Them) (2016)

Regrettably, I was late to the party for the latest addition to the cinematic Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While producers have said that this new film series began in Fantastic Beasts (And Where To Find Them) is distinct from those eight movies to a degree, there’s no denying that this latest series is an extension of those films that came before it. Those movies (based on J.K. Rowling’s mega-popular book series that I know there is no way I am just now making you aware of) were a great boon to Warner Bros. over many years, and while they still try to figure out how to build other franchises/cinematic universes (*cough* I’m looking at you, Batman & Superman), the corporate desire of Warner Bros. has always been to go back to Hogwarts and all of that magical money, somehow and someway. Even after Rowling said that the Potter series was concluded, interviews show her finding it difficult to completely leave the world she alone created behind. So much was created in writing those stories (much of which I reckon is still in her own mind and notes), there is still much imagination to be displayed and shared with the world. So, here we find the first entry in the “prequel” series, and all it has to go off of is a short book Rowling wrote not long ago.

I’ll be honest: I don’t get to read as much as I would like. I read the first three Harry Potter novels, but after that, my journey ended in the first half of “Goblet of Fire”. I know many who are die-hard book fans, having read them multiple times, so when Rowling put out the Fantastic Beasts book, it was more like a snack than a meal. I remember skepticism regarding how that little story could become a reported FIVE(!?!) movies, but here we are. I did not read that story, so if it gave viewers an idea of what was to come, I do not know. Still, the American setting of this film greatly intrigued me. As entertaining as the original Harry Potter series was, it was always set atop a British culture. The thought of Rowling’s vision atop America, whatever the time period, is enough to get me on board. Trailers revealed it set in the early twentieth century with speakeasies and Model-Ts, and I was sold. So, I eagerly awaited the film’s release, but I have small children. For whatever reason, my wife and I missed the film theatrically. We decided that it would be a definite purchase, sight unseen, upon release. What a great decision that was!

As stated above, the film is set in New York City, circa 1926. Sights made familiar in other films mean that we’ve probably seen some variation of the city even in this time period, but it’s never been shown quite like this. As is canon in the Harry Potter stories, everything we “Muggles”…I mean “no-maj”…I mean regular humans see in our world isn’t the full story. Down a dark alley, with a little magic, we could enter locales that we otherwise would never enter. The greatest city on Earth even then had a hidden element we all missed! The film follows Newt Scamander (played by Oscar winner, Eddie Redmayne), who comes to the Americas from England carrying a briefcase that really needs new clasps. Inside the small box is a larger secret: he has a collection of magical animals he has procured and provided with necessary sanctuary. He happens upon a wide-eyed baker, Jacob (Dan Fogler), in the presence of bankers asking for a loan. Needless to say, those flimsy clasps on that briefcase don’t do their job, and many of those carefully cultivated creatures find their way out into the city. The moments (and mixup) between Newt & Jacob together set off a journey that causes the worlds of humans and wizards to collide head-on in the streets of New York. In the story, their disturbances arouse the suspicions of the M.A.C.U.S.A., or the Magical Congress of the United States of America (Bureaucracy apparently made the leap over the pond for wizards as well). Their disgraced investigator, Porpetina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), winds up befriending them both, as she investigates a series of disturbances in the city that may or may not be connected with the escape of Newt’s beasts. Telling much more will be delving into spoilers, but it’s safe to say that there is much more going on than just magical animals on the loose that will begin to answer questions and fill in the blanks for an ongoing storyline that will lead right into the original Harry Potter lore.

The filmmakers assembled leads that were impeccably cast. Redmayne is making waves currently as a “go-to” actor for good reason; his understated take on characters and their mannerisms is convincing, even as it may not be “showy”. Fogler is an underrated comedy actor, prior to this film, but he shows dramatic chops here that I hadn’t seen. Waterston’s charcter, Tina, and her sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, are very much two sides of a coin, but both accompany Newt & Jacob, forming a very well-rounded team. A thread I didn’t discuss above was the M.A.C.U.S.A. agent, Percival Graves, played with a steely demeanor by Colin Farrell; I’m usually not a big fan of him in movies, as there is a similar quality throughout much of his work, but here, his reserved take on the character shows “less is more”. His interest in the anti-magic crusader and orphan handler Mary Lou Barebone, played coldly by Samantha Morton, and her “family”, including Credence (Ezra Miller). Her militant group of witch-hunters and fiery rhetoric strikes a chord with similar movements in that time that were racially motivated; Agent Graves should be investigating them on those grounds alone, but there is more to his interest than we can initially see. That whole storyline is adequate, but it never fully engaged me, honestly. I think I became a child again watching the magical animals throughout, and there are many, with several providing great comedy. That was where the magic of the film truly was for me, and it captivated me thoroughly. There’s a surprise or two that the film has that are left until the end, but they will surely be explored in sequels.

In regard to its content with witchcraft, there’s nothing here that wasn’t in the Harry Potter movies and books; if you had no problem with them, you won’t here, and vice-versa. The only content of caution would be the flapper dresses of that time, as they are low-cut and revealing. Acknowledging that reminds me that while I didn’t find any content that was offensive to me personally, everything here feels more adult. The stakes seem larger, even if they really aren’t anymore than we’re used to in the Harry Potter movies. It may be because the main characters are all adult, but I found this to be the perfect compliment to children who grew up with Harry Potter and are now adults. The series looks back with the trappings of a film more tailored for adults in tone. Overall, I’m extremely pleased with this film, and I look forward to more adventures involving Newt Scamander and company.

Score: 8.5 (out of 10)

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