Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Film Review

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To briefly remind you of its origins, for the first few seconds of the film, just as the Warner Bros. Pictures logo looms on the widescreen, you’ll hear a couple of bars from John Williams’ Harry Potter theme. Just a few bars. Then, they dissolve. It’s as if the conductor’s magical baton from Hogwarts had waved, ushering the notes aside and creating new ones out of thin air; a new theme for a new film.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the much anticipated fantasy adventure adapted by J.K.Rowling from her book of the same name. Unlike the early Potter novels and films, Fantastic Beasts, the first of five, is darker and more adult from the get-go. Plus, it doesn’t waste time in establishing anything. From the opening moments when the camera zooms up and down the front pages of newspaper columns and headlines as if climbing skyscrapers and falling down the other side, we’re thrust into the tale of real-world fear. New York City headlines cry Dark Wizard Terror Threat and asks Is Anyone Safe? Then we cut to a woman called Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) declaring to a small crowd of listeners in the streets of Manhattan that, “Something is stalking our city!

That something is an invisible creature wreaking havoc and destroying buildings all over the place, though most think the damage is caused by more natural means, like ignited gas leaks. Of course, we know better.

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It’s 1926. A young and somewhat scatterbrained wizard from England, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), has just arrived off the boat. Once a student of Hogwarts, he’s now an employee at the British Ministry of Magic, and he’s a man on a mission, though his mission is immediately waylaid within minutes of arriving.  He’s plunged into a new adventure revolving around the wizardry community of America and that mysterious, invisible creature wreaking havoc.

Those new to J.K.Rowling and her wizardry world of magic may be baffled by the stories’ references and setup. The film assumes you know where Hogwarts resides, what a Muggle is, and who Albus Dumbledore was. He’s not in the film – he may turn up in one of the four future installments – but he and others are often mentioned with no reminder as to who or what they are. There’s also the backstory to the book itself which should be explained. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not only the title of the film, it’s also a textbook that studies magical creatures from around the world. For first-year wizardry students at Hogwarts, it’s required reading. The book charts 85 species of magical creatures, written by magizoologist Newt Scamander. In the film, the book has yet to be written. That’s something Newt will do once the current adventure is concluded and he leaves New York for England.

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Carrying a somewhat weather beaten, brown suitcase, Newt walks the streets of NYC only to have his belongings mistakenly taken by a likable schlub of a New Yorker called Jacob Kowalski (comedian Dan Fogler) who happens to be carrying a similar looking suitcase. Upon realizing he’s carrying the wrong case, Kowalski opens it, just to check what he’s got. To his shock and dismay, he lets loose a series of fantastical, mystical creatures upon New York.

English wizard Newt, you see, has arrived in America carrying a giant Thunderbird in his suitcase (like Doctor Who’s time-traveling Tardis, the suitcase is bigger on the inside) and the wizard intends to make his way across country to let the bird loose in its natural habitat of Monument Valley, Arizona. Unfortunately – and it’s not explained why – he’s also carrying a number of other creatures in that case, and several of them are now running around NYC having fun. You’d think it might have been considerably more sensible to leave those other creatures back in England rather than take the whole fantastical zoo across the Atlantic, but then, I guess, there would have been no adventure.

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As the episodic, non-stop escapade leaps from one situation to another, momentum builds to an overwhelming climax that suffers from way too much CGI destruction. A black, tornado-like, whirling mass of a creature called an Obscurus is finally discovered, destroying everything of NYC in its path. Naturally, there had to be a big finish with something to top everything seen before, but when that black, inky mass takes over the screen, there’s no real excitement taking hold, just lots of noisy stuff happening. And the ability to later clean everything up with magic feels a little too conveniently tidy.

But there’s more to the film than just a plot. The fun of Fantastic Beasts – and it truly is fun – is not so much with the effects or even the beasts, as charming as many of them turn out to be. And it’s not with the story, which turns out to be as busy and as scatterbrained as Newt. It’s the characters, particularly the four leads.

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In addition to Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, there’s a suggested love interest with Porpentia Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam), a demoted witch with good intentions who works for the Magical Congress of the United States issuing licenses for wands. Fogler’s Kowalski – he’s a No-Maj, the American equivalent of a Muggle, someone from the real-world, void of magical abilities – who, bemused but fascinated, finds himself mixed up with the wizardry community when all he really wants is a loan from the bank to finance his proposed Kowalski Bakery. And finally there’s Porpentia’s dreamy young blonde sister, Queenie (singer Alison Sudol), who can read minds while developing an affection for Kowalski. All four team together. They’re a delightful bunch, made all the more pleasing because of their developed attachment to each other.

There’s also a lot of good humor. When Newt and Porpentia search Macy’s for one of his lost beasts, an invisible creature amusingly called Dougal, the young woman asks, “How do you catch…?” “With great difficulty,” Newt interrupts. And when all four characters try to capture another of Newt’s lost beasts, one that has the ability to determine the outcome of the immediate future, Newt tells everyone to be careful and to “Try not to be predictable.”

Author J.K. Rowling’s imagination is something to be admired. It’s not just the creatures that amaze, or the magic that dazzles, there’s ingenuity in the developed wordplay and a seemingly boundless creativity to the world she appoints. When no-maj Kowalski is exposed to Rowling’s universe and sees for the first time the wonder of all the child-like magic surrounding him, he knows he’s not dreaming. “I ain’t got the brains to make this up,” he declares. But J.K. Rowling does, and, like Kowalski, it’s so much fun for the rest of us to witness.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length: 132 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

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