FILM REVIEW – FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. With Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston. Written by J.K. Rowling. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. 133 minutes.
Oddly enough, the fantastic beasts of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is the least interesting part in this offshoot of the “Harry Potter” series. Author J. K. Rowling takes her title from a textbook used at her fictional Hogwarts wizardry school, and which appeared in bookstores in a slim volume. What she has done with it here, however, is address a lot of the issues that were left unresolved in her original seven books.
Chief among them is whether the wizarding world extended to America. Now we see that it does as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in 1926 New York with a magical suitcase filed with strange creatures. Among his plans is finding another magical animal from a local dealer, but he quickly learns that the American wizarding authorities take a dim view of such matters.
Several of the creatures escape and Newt sets off to find them, getting some help from a would-be baker (Dan Fogler) who is a “non-maj,” or non-magical, what the British wizards call “muggles.” He also connects with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who has been demoted from being an “auror,” or enforcer of wizarding rules, because of past mistakes. She’s a lot better than that but her boss Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) isn’t interested.
The main plot of the story involves Newt and friends recapturing the missing beasts, but also uncovering a plot to subvert the wizarding world that is presumably led by the mysterious Grindelwald, a precursor to Voldermort in the Potter series. There are a number of loose ends including one involving a powerful newspaper publisher (Jon Voight) and another with anti-witching group that wants to bring back the Salem witch trials that are barely developed. That’s when discovering this is the first of an intended five film series lets you know there is much more to come.
As an expansion of the Potter world, it’s a lot of fun, with sly references to characters we know, like Albus Dumbledore who will be the head of Hogwarts in Harry’s time. Seeing it through the filter of 1926 New York is also interesting, as when the plot takes Newt and Tina to a wizarding speakeasy where the bartender announces he is a “house elf.”
Director David Yates, who directed several of the Potter films, is slated to direct the entire “Fantastic Beasts” series, so there’s a consistency in the look and feel of the films. As the anchor for the story, Redmayne plays Newt as if he’s a distant cousin of the Weasleys, someone well-meaning and comical who sometimes let’s things slip out of control. Although a romance seems to be planned for him and Tina, the more interesting duo is Fogler’s “non-maj” and Alison Sudol as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie. She comes closes to the notion of what a “Jazz Age” witch might be like.
“Fantastic Beasts” may not convert any muggles or non-majes, but fans of Harry Potter who have come to appreciate Rowling’s fertile imagination should have a great time. To its credit, the movie comes across less as an opportunity to squeeze every last dollar out of the franchise and more like Rowling has many more stories to tell in a universe she hasn’t yet finished exploring.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.