Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ Will Delight ‘Potter’ Fans, Bewilder Others
The wizarding world comes to America, specifically 1926 New York in J.K. Rowlings’ Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. This marks the first screenplay for Rowling who to date has penned seven books in the Harry Potter series. Most die-hard Potterheads will know that Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was one of Harry’s textbooks at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry written by Newt Scamander. They will also have no problem deciphering Potterspeak, but for those not so familiar a cheat sheet may be needed.
We meet Newt (Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything) who is fresh off the boat from England carrying only a magical briefcase. He is a “magizoologist,” a fantastic beast conservationist who is in town to wrangle all the creatures that have escaped his neck of the woods. But there is also a mysterious entity tearing through the cobblestone streets destroying everything in its wake and bulldozing buildings. Plus, the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindenwald is MIA, adding another element of unrest.
In fact, Rowling doesn’t shy away from the darkness that pervades the film where humans are murdered by an uncontrollable force that attacks and then vanishes into thin air. At a press junket in New York, Director David Yates justified the wickedness:
“What’s powerful about her work is she isn’t afraid to take children to dark places. She isn’t afraid to tell stories that explore about how scary the world can be. We were concerned early on in the process will children enjoy this movie because of it’s darkness? But Jo has always gone there. She’s always been keen to deal with death and characters that are corrosive and dangerous. I think that will hopefully continue in the sense of a younger audience will still be able to engage in the story and deal with those grown-up themes and be introduced to them.”
Newt quickly finds out that things work a little differently in the Big Apple for wizards where “Muggles” are “No-Majs” and a permit is required to carry a wand.
When Niffler, a mischievous platypus-like creature, whose plushy toy will no doubt be on every Potter fan’s Christmas list, escapes the briefcase into a bank pilfering everyone’s coins around him, Newt meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski is an unsuspecting No-Maj who carries his own similar looking briefcase filled with homemade pastries in the hopes of securing a loan for his bakery. Kowalski provides the comic relief, an Abbott to Newt’s Costello. When their cases are innocently switched, Kowalski unknowingly frees some of Newt’s beasts into the city – a severe breach of wizarding law. Kowalski becomes swept up in an investigation led by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror who sees this as her chance to get back into the fold.
All the magical bells and whistles are here like newspaper headlines coming alive and streudels making themselves with the point of a wand – their ingredients swirling through the air. The special effects and CGI-created fantastic beasts are the real stars of the film like Big Frank, the Occamy that is a mixture of a bird and dragon and can morph to fit any size, like slithering into a tiny teacup if its reward is a cockroach. Thunderbird is the four-winged eagle-like creature with a long tail, and Nundu, a leopard whose head puffs up like a blowfish when it roars. Bowtruckle is a cute, leafy creature that sits on Newt’s shoulder or his lapel.
The charm of the Harry Potter world was casting virtual unknowns who became stars. In this case the idea to cast accomplished actors like Redmayne and Colin Farrell as the evil Percival Graves – who has a maniacally wand waving moment – may have backfired as their acting skills were left to merely react to the imaginary goings-on around them. However, Ezra Miller as Credence, who has magical ancestry but no power, stands out in his portrayal of an abused and battered boy by the hands of his adoptive mother Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).
In one scene Redmayne is even upstaged by Erumpent, a gigantic one-horned cross between an elephant and a hippo who is running wild in Central Park. He performs a mating dance to lure the horny beast into his briefcase which he admitted was one of his more embarrassing moments on film, choreographed by Alexandra Reynolds who he worked with on The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl.
He said, “’I need help on a mating dance!’ So we went down a YouTube hole of mating bird calls, mating this that and the other. Once every few days Alex would film me doing an amazing dance and we would send it to (director) David Yates and there would be this absolutely horrific four hour period when I would wait for a reaction. And then a very serious reaction would come back: ‘I don’t think this is quite seductive enough. I’m not sure about any of it’. It was a long process and eventually made what you see in the film. There’s about 10 videos out there somewhere in the world that could end my career!”
Most Potterheads will disagree as they were cheering and whooping it up at the screening. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may be fantastic for them but a bewildering magical mystery for others.