FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (8 out of 10) Directed by David Yates; Written by JK Rowling; Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton; Running time 133 min; Rated PG-13 for "some fantasy action violence"; In wide release November 18, 2016.
This review may contain mild spoilers.
JK Rowling has branched out from the wizarding world of Harry Potter to write a new spinoff set decades before the events of her original story. Set in 1926, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, tells two competing tales, the first is about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) trying to change the wizarding world's mind about how magical creatures should be treated in his own small ways, and the second is about the turmoil the wizarding world in America faces at that time. The two stories intersect only occasionally since Scamander and his case of mystical creatures are used as a scapegoat to cover some of the most untoward goings on.
Like the opening chapters Rowling is used to penning, this seems more lighthearted than grim, but after watching the film, one can only assume, like the Harry Potter films, we're going to be heading into dark territory indeed.
Colin Farrell's character, Percival Graves, is an official at the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA, as it's referred to in acronym format by characters in the film) and he is working to track down a being of unspeaking power, but not everything is as it seems.
Samantha Morton holds up another part of the story as a horrible "New Salemer," a street preacher who takes in orphans to use as pawns in her bid to have witches put on trial and burned at the stake once more.
To introduce us into the wizarding world from an outsider's perspective is Dan Fogler, playing the lovable factory worker who wants to be a baker Jacob Kowalski. Kowalski is the comedic anchor of the film since Redmayne's Scamander is an awkward introvert who has trouble relating to humans. For his animals, however, he has all of the understanding they would ever need. Mating and courtship for a bizarre rhino-like creature? No problem. Talking to a woman? A bridge too far. But Kowalski has no such problems and charms his way through the film.
For the most part, I found the film charming. The way it ties subtly into the greater mythology of the universe Rowling has spent two decades building was fascinating, but so was watching the differences between the way the wizarding world in the United States operates as opposed to the way the Ministry of Magic in the UK works. For me, the thing I love so much about universes like Star Wars or Marvel or DC comics is the rich verisimilitude the world gives me, and Rowling is able to add to it beautifully here. We see the effects of Prohibition, the puritan roots of America, even the after-effects of the Great War.
There's also a cinema literacy here I loved. By the time the film closes, I was reminded of the ending of Chaplin's City Lights, which would have been coming out only a decade after the film was set. In it, Chaplin plays his iconic Tramp who helps a blind flower-seller see again. They fall in love but he has to go to prison in order to help her. When he gets out, he sees her again, but she doesn't recognize him now that she has sight. When he meets her at the successful flower shop she's opened, the realization of who they are and the tragedy of the situation tears open one of the most incredible endings a film has ever reached for. It's simultaneously saccharine-sweet and sad to the point where there's not a dry eye in the house. The ending of Fantastic Beasts reaches for the same heights with a similar moment, in its own wizarding way, and although it doesn't reach them, who can blame them for trying?
With that Chaplin-esque ending, giving me that mix of bittersweet I love as I leave the cinema, as well as all of the epic wizard-duelling I'd hope for in a climax, and all of the fun of the hunt of the magical creatures through the first half of the film (seriously, the nifler was amazing), I would have to rate myself sufficiently entertained through this picture. I'd rate it an 8 out of 10 and rank it as one of the better films the Harry Potter franchise has given us.
I was skeptical that this story could fill five films, but after watching the first, I'm more than happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them goes into wide release November 18, 2016.