FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM spells up a charming and eye-catching expansion on the magical realm inhabited by Potter people, pets and phantasms, as the first of World Treasure J.K. Rowling’s spinoff’s from the ‘Wizarding World’ franchise begun with Harry at Hogwarts—the Great Eight. If the rest are as good as this 2016 kickoff there will be a whole new generation of enchanted followers joining the Muggle masses who feast on one of the Blue Planet’s greatest and most generous imaginations. Rowling for Empress!
Over the 133 minutes, the plotting (scripted this time directly by Rowling, from her 2001 book) is simple to follow on screen but sufficiently complex for easy summary. Briefly: in 1926 New York City, recently arrived British wizard & magizoologist ‘Newt Scamander’ (Eddie Redmayne) has adventure, peril, friendship and budding romance unfold when some of his pet creatures escape. He must find them because “For they’re currently in alien terrain surrounded by millions of the most vicious creatures on the planet… Humans.”
Recapture involves sympathetic dark wizard chaser/auror ‘Porpetina Goldstein’ (Katherine Waterston), genial “no-maj” and aspiring baker ‘Jacob Kowalski’ (Dan Fogler) and Tina’s effusive younger sister ‘Queenie’ (Alison Sudol), who bonds with Jacob. Making their progress dangerous is ‘Percival Graves’ (Colin Farrell), imposing ‘Director of Magical Security’ for MACUSA–the ‘Magical Congress of the United States’ (not to be confused with the actual US Congress, a world-renowned den of hideous trolls with truly malevolent intent). A large part of Manhattan gets walloped before things are settled.
Smoothly directed by 4-time Potter veteran David Yates, with richly crafted production design (Oscar-nominated) by Stuart Craig and Anna Pinock, the camera expertise of Philippe Rousselot, another finely tuned music score by the great James Newton Howard and Oscar-winning Costume Design from Coleen Atwood (her 4th).
Self-effacing Redmayne and plucky Waterston are very good, but they’re bested by the touching linkup between odd-couple Fogler and Sudol. Farell makes a strong villain. As usual, the special effects dazzle, but a reason they they register here is because Rowling’s fully-fleshed characters connect with us as well as each other. *
Along with the backdating duty of frame-building for what we knew from the earlier (okay, later) sagas, it was a smart move to shift action from Britain to fresh settings across the pond. With the next installment—Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald—making use of Paris, we could hope forthcoming adventures might take in conjurers, costumes and culture creatures from other continents. Dear C.K.: let’s see some spells cast from Asia, Africa and South America, too.
With a production budget of $180,000,000 and another $150,000,000 in marketing, this had to score big, and in a year swamped by giant-sized CGI spectacles and their sequelim, breaking all sorts of already astronomic records, it came in a grateful #8, with a global take of $814,000,000.
Featuring Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo (attention-fixing), Ron Perlman (in makeup, but you can’t hide that voice), Josh Cowdery, Zöe Kravitz, and a neat last call turn-up from Johnny Depp, as the feared ‘Gellert Grindelwald’. Plus a swell ending.
* Why did this multi-million-dollar make-believe-mission pop a happy champagne cork and the same year’s roller-coasting Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children have as little kick as flat beer? Heart checkmates pulse. The horsefly in the goblet for many fantasy, horror or super-hero films is the suspense part in the suspension-of-disbelief factor, required to care whether or not TunaMan can materialize back to 1367 before the 12-eyed Snarfl eats Princess Daphne. Nearly all of these modern mega-productions look good, but for myself, no investment in the characters leaves limited patience for 1001 New Ways to Blow Things Up. Of course, the “let’s pretend” game isn’t restricted to tales about wizards, witches, werewolves or wookies. The stupid shoot-’em-up salvos in The Expendables and the straight-out serious slaughter on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan are both simulations, fakes, if you prefer, but one fires nothing but blank technique and the other strikes with collateral emotional impact (hopefully you can tell the difference).
Ultimately, if anything goes with movie watching, it’s ‘whatever rings your chime’. People who sneer at Star Wars blithely accept the absurd, mountain-sized buildings of Blade Runner. Your mood, who you see it with, and how and where you do so plays in. The gleeful anti-social nastiness of Suicide Squad repelled me, but the blood-spattering mayhem of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was a wicked hoot (few critics agree, but then I don’t have to live with them, either). My mystical molecule mix can’t get over-much excited by manic Marvel material, but rags-to-riches J.K. Rowling, OBE (“Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”) and her truly marvelous universe of wand wavers wins my wonderment and Wow.