Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight November 21, 2016
My son was seven when J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series began appearing on U.S. shores, in 1998. Each new book, ordered in advance by Grammy and Grampa, arrived, and I would read the books aloud to my son and daughters. These were fun family moments which waned as the years progressed, and the books came farther apart and my children got older. By then, however, we had the film versions. The books and movies, at the risk of sounding overly romantic, were a magical time of bonding with the kids. The characters aged and the stories grew darker, but for a decade, Harry and his friends were there.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, author Rowling released a small chapbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, donating the proceeds to charity. It was a small “reproduction” of a required textbook for the Care of Magical Creatures class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was simple, with descriptions of various magical creatures throughout the world, written by fictional “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. Today, the book is in the attic stored with other memories of my kids’ childhood.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016), the film, is a long-awaited return to the world of witches and wizards lovingly drawn and long-breathed to life by Ms. Rowling. Early in the process, Warner Brothers had been tinkering with the idea of making a film based on this small book, set before Harry, and even Voldemort himself, was born. When J.K. Rowling got wind of the project, she took a stab at writing the screenplay herself. Rowling is the only credited writer for the film, which is surprising for a newbie screenwriter. I did a little research and, yes, she was the only one, working with director David Yates on shaping the script for film.
Yates is back after directing the last four films in the POTTER franchise, and I think that’s a good choice. He showed a good eye for keeping the old wonder spread throughout those final films while steering the series into darker waters. FANTASTIC BEASTS has the look and feel of the original Potter stories but—and here’s where we’ll start jumping into the actual review—it is not a Harry Potter movie. People coming to the theater hoping to recapture the tale of a young boy defying all odds by fighting the world’s most powerful villain need to remember: that’s been done. You’ve graduated Hogwart’s. Time to live in this magical world as an adult. (Can’t believe I just wrote that!)
At the edges, FANTASTIC BEASTS could be considered something similar: a reclusive zoologist with Asperger’s defies all odds fighting the most powerful villain of the 1920s. But that’s at the edges, and he doesn’t do much fighting of the bad guys. I was impressed (though others might not be) that they mostly kept our main character away from that realm. What this movie is really about is simply a reclusive zoologist with Asperger’s, devoting his life to studying, cataloging and protecting misunderstood magical creatures, inadvertently stumbling into one dangerous situation after another with no regard for his own safety, only the animals’. Along the way, he meets some nice and not-so-nice people, whom he puts up with as long as they don’t get in the way.
That basic summary is why I enjoyed the film, but also why I’m guessing other reviews might be mixed. Don’t get me wrong, this film is not perfect. I had some issues, but if you go into FBAWTFT with the right expectations, you’ll enjoy it quite a lot. It captures the spirit and flavor of its predecessors, in its own way. It’s like this: in the POTTER series, so much happens outside of the main characters’ sphere (what with being children and Hogwart’s the only world they are able to focus on). Quite a lot of grown-up bad stuff happened before they were born, and continued to happen, but they are only vaguely aware until it affects them directly. It’s why the culminating battle with Voldermort occurs at the school—Hogwarts is their world. We met peripheral characters as we followed young Harry through his adolescence, but these characters live their own lives off-screen. The Ministry of Magic managed other areas besides the educational system. FANTASTIC BEASTSspends its time in this world, the “real world” if you will. It’s full of grown-ups. Disturbed, magical kids, as well, but mostly grown-ups. Add to this the fact it takes place in 1926 America, and we have a whole history of interesting ticks and societal plot devices to play with.
It’s worth mentioning that since the film takes place in America, not Britain, it’s the first time American actors have a chance to play in Rowling’s literary sandbox. When the HARRY POTTER films began, Rowling stipulated that only British actors could be in them: a way of keeping Hollywood from Americanizing the stories. Smart move. Now, the Yanks get to play. Most of the major characters are still played by Brits (who play Americans), but overall I think the Hollywood gang kept up with them.
Eddie Redmayne (of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, 2014, and LES MISERABLES, 2012) is, without a doubt, the perfect Newt Scamander: laser-focused in his passion for magical creatures and unable to look humans in the eye for more than a few seconds. Granted, I’ve known Redmayne was playing Newt for a year, so that might have swayed my expectation, and the actor, himself, is laser-focused and hardly ever makes eye contact with his costars in any film. Well cast, then, because he seems to play himself. Scamander was a good character, however, who knows what he wants and stumbles over pretty much everything, and everyone, to do it. Sounds like this could be a comedy. Though there are humorous parts, overall Scamander is played very straight. And endearingly.
Since this story takes place in the Twenties, casting Katherine Waterston (STEVE JOBS, 2015, MICHAEL CLAYTON, 2007) as the upwardly-mobile but too-nice Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein was a good one. Her character comes across one moment as mousy, only to take charge and battle monsters and bad guys the next. Like Scamander, Tina often stumbles over people in her pursuit of her goal—to regain her positon as Auror (the magical world’s rendition of the police), which she lost because of some confusing, vaguely-explained reasons.
Aside from Redmayne, I think the strongest performance comes from Dan Fogler (THE GOLDBERGS TV Series, and many voice roles in animated films) as American Jacob Kowalski. Kowalski is what wizards call a No-Maj, the American word for Muggles (non-magical people). As in England, the magical world is hidden from the No-Majs, with much effort and expenditure to keep the two separate. In the U.S., they fear a war between the two populations. Many references are made to the days of Salem and its history of witch trials. Personally, the way witches and wizards are presented in Rowling’s world, I don’t see much of a contest if that should happen. Fogler and Redmayne make a good pair, however. Kowalski’s outgoing personality and wonder at the world he’s thrust into plays well against Scamander’s introversion and lack of surprise at anything that happens. Having discovered the magical world, Kowalski is supposed to have his memory wiped to forget everything he’s seen. He proves too useful, and likable, for anyone to want to do that, so they keep finding reasons not to.
Neither do the most nefarious of characters in the magical world. In Harry Potter’s case, that was Voldemort, who hated Muggles and wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth. In this new film, mentioned in sprinkles throughout the story, is the evil sorcerer Gellert Grindelwald. Headlines in the opening credits show him spreading terror, only to eventually go into hiding. Seeing this, you look for him throughout the movie. The answer, revealed at the end, is ridiculously obvious, but there are a few mysteries going on in this film to keep you distracted and guessing at all of them.
I guess it’s time to give you a taste of what the story is actually about. Briefly: Newt Scamander arrives in New York in 1926, to meet a fellow “magizoologist” (we learn later there is another, more secret reason). He carries with him a beaten, leather satchel full of magical creatures. It’s bigger on the inside, like a TARDIS. One animal in particular escapes into the city—a cute, platypus-like thing attracted to gold and shiny jewels. Pursued by Newt, it sneaks into a bank, where American No-Maj Jacob Kowalski is trying to get a loan for his bakery. The two get their leather satchels mixed up, and later Kowalski inadvertently sets free more creatures into the unwitting streets of New York.
Meanwhile, there is a dark force terrorizing the city, crashing through buildings and tearing up streets like a finger running under a puzzle. Streets being fingered is becoming the new favorite special effect, I’ve noticed. While the magical world’s Aurors investigate, led by Colin Farrell’s (THE LOBSTER, 2015, IN BRUGES, 2008) Percival Graves, Newt’s own escaped creatures become the easiest scapegoat. Knowing J.K. Rowling’s penchant for meaningful names, and how Farrell portrays his character from the get-go, you know that Graves is a bad guy. If he wasn’t, Rowling would have named him Goodman or something similar. No secret there.
Mayhem and lots of city block destruction ensues. Even with a bad guy high up in the Auror leadership, easily manipulating events, a young woman trying to make a name for herself, a nice, friendly American No-Maj suddenly befriended into a world he’d never known, and a scary teenager and his younger sister forced to hand out leaflets by an anti-witch zealot (more on them in a second), the story always comes back to the creatures of the title. They are the focus of the Rowling’s story, and Yates direction keeps it this way, at times by force. I mentioned at the beginning that moviegoers expecting the usual Good Guy versus Bad Guy story might be disappointed, but in many ways FANTASTIC BEASTS battles with itself to be that andabout the preservation of magical creatures. Sometimes it feels as if it’s never quite got a handle on either. In truth, the creature storyline, though interesting, might not be strong enough in its own right to carry the show, so the film adds the threat of evil to add weight, and risk. Both battle for your attention, and sometimes the overall effect leaves the viewer not quite knowing where to keep their attention.
There is one set of characters which act as the connecting point between these two warring plots. Ezra Miller (SUICIDE SQUAD, 2016, TRAINWRECK, 2015) is fantastic (no pun intended) as Credence, a shaky, beaten-dog teenager whose “mother,” Mary Lou (Samantha Morton of the MAX & RUBY TV Series) runs a group called Second Salem, wanting to resurrect the witch-burning days of historic Salem, Massachusetts. She’s decidedly creepy. So is her young daughter Modesty, who skips about singing old rhymes about burning and torturing witches. Modesty and her brother Credence have been abused, and slink through the film with soulful menace. They harbor a secret which becomes key to the film. Our resident bad guy, Graves, knows this, and befriends Credence to get to the girl. She has something he wants, some connection to the invisible, destructive creature rampaging through the city.
There are a lot of moving parts in this story, with the main focus on Newt Scamander and his band of cohorts, including Kowalski, ambitious Auror-wannabe Tina and, eventually, her seductively naïve sister Queenie (Alison Sudol from the TRANSPARENT TV Series… oh, my word, I just got that show’s title… heh… sorry, I can be a little slow sometimes). Flying around them like a Thunderbird (one of the critters in this thing) is the mystery of that weird little family, the monstrous creature that begins killing No-Majs, and the leadership of the New York witches trying to stop everything from falling apart around them. The intertwining stories work well, and overall FANTASTIC BEASTS is an enjoyable film. But there were a few plot kinks and wasted actors worth mentioning.
First off, if Farrell’s Mr. Graves is so keen on finding the girl, and has all the resources of the wizarding world at his disposal, there’s no reason he couldn’t have just gone directly to her instead of using the boy Credence. It wouldn’t have worked out very well in the resolution of the film, I guess. At one point in the movie, Newt and Tina are sentenced to death by Graves for breaking a few laws of magical society, specifically bringing a muggle—sorry, No-Maj—into their world. Seems extreme, but he passes sentence in his office and two women with wands force them to go to this really creepy room where they will die a horrible, liquid acid death (really was a dark scene), but come on, the magical world is some kind of democracy, isn’t it? One angry-looking man in an office says kill these two, and they follow his orders without question? Sorry, it bothered me. I’m a geek at heart, forgiving many things, but I draw the line at bad character behavior motivation.
As far as wasted roles, Jon Voight (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, 1969, BABY GENUISES AND THE SPACE BABY, 2015) and Josh Cowdery (LEGENDS TV Series) play Henry Shaw Senior and Junior (newspaper magnate and state senator, respectively). They seem to exist to make us wonder if one of them is the evil Grindelwald in disguise. When Shaw Jr. is murdered during a campaign speech, it seems pointless. Was this a way to expose the magical world to regular humans? When the identity of the monster is revealed, this death makes no sense. Why were they in the story? There’s also a younger brother, crack newspaper reporter Langdon Shaw (Ronan Raftery, MOONE BOY TV Series), who could have been a significant character, yet spent the film looking smarter than everyone else, and raising his eyebrows in various ah-ha moments near the end. There was no point to his character except to shed more light on the Second Salem movement. Zoe Kravitz (ALLEGIANT, 2016, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015) is credited as “Lestrange,” but her character’s only role in the film is a photograph carried by Newt. An old flame, and a name which should be familiar to those Potterphiles among us. Another seemingly wasted bit of casting—though fun when he is revealed and I imagine will be back—is Johnny Depp as the evil Grindelwald. He gets airtime in the final scenes (no, I promise I’m not giving anything away here—you know he’s going to show up from the opening scene).
They’re already working on a sequel, and perhaps these folks come back (especially Depp and, I suspect, Kravitz, in expanded roles), but I doubt we’ll see most of the other actors again in the series. I hope not. Nothing against them. The New York setting, with its dirty, near-sepia toned cinematography (which was quite good in its own right) was fine for this film, but it’s not going to be much of a draw for a sequel. Newt Scamander is a world traveler. Subsequent films should take risks and set themselves in exotic locales. Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Antarctica, somewhere different, exotic, anywhere but hapless New York or London, which get the brunt of special effects destruction in Hollywood.
I’ve gone way beyond my word count, sorry, and I’m not sure if I’ve given you what you’re looking for. Is FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM worth the cost of going to the theater? I think so, yes. There is quite a lot of action, with CGI that’s not too obvious. It brings us into a corner of Rowling’s magical universe we haven’t seen before, and Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fascinating, fun and carefree enough to easily bring us along for the ride. It’s not a HARRY POTTER movie, and if you’re looking for that, you’ll be disappointed. But it is a step deeper into the world, and history, of the Boy Who Lived, with its own flaws and blemishes, wondrous enough visually to make the trip. Quite a lot of awesome films are competing for your ticket prices at the moment, with more to come when December arrives, but for good, sometimes scary family entertainment, you could do far worse. Just go in with the right expectations and you’ll be fine.
I give it three knives.