Friday, November 18, 2016

Plot-Packed 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them' Plays To Adults

This review originally appeared on

It's been almost 20 years since the first Harry Potter novel was released, and fifteen since the first film in the series hit theaters. Those kids who first read those books and saw the movies are adults now, many with kids of their own, and while I'm sure they're sharing their Harry Potter love with those youngsters, I bet there's a part of them that wishes there were some new stories to dive into.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fits into that niche quite well, giving adult Harry Potter fans something aimed a little more at them, while still being perfectly acceptable for those younger Potterphiles.

Until recently (this week, as a matter of fact), my only exposure to the Harry Potter world was via the movies, not the books. I saw them all, and enjoyed them, but never felt particularly drawn into the world. In general, the genre isn't my favorite. But Fantastic Beasts sucked me in right away for two reasons. One, because it's centered on adults, and not kids. And the other because I am a sucker for period pieces, especially when that period is New York City in the 1920's.

Directed by David Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter films, from a screenplay by J.K. Rowling (her first), the film is based on the title of a textbook assigned to first year Hogwarts students, which was released as an actual companion book to the original series in 2001. It centers on the book's supposed author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist who arrives in New York with a suitcase full of critters and plans to release one into its native habitat in Arizona. These beasts aren't pretty unicorns, and most are kind of, well, beastly. (My favorite has to be the platypus-like Niffler, who seems to like shiny jewelry almost as much as I do.)

But before he can even hail a cab, he comes face-to-face with the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an anti-witchcraft cult headed by the stern Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and her creepy adopted kids, including Ezra Miller as Credence, who looks like Buster Keaton — if Buster Keaton had been beaten by his mother on a daily basis.

If that weren't enough, one of Newt's creatures escapes; he accidentally reveals his magical skills to a No-maj named Jacob Kowalski (No-maj is the American version of Muggle); and he is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson, always charming), an investigator with the Magical Congress of the United States of America.

When his beasts are wrongfully accused of the destruction that has befallen certain areas of the city, Newt, Tina, her clairvoyant sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Jacob (Dan Fogler) team up to rescue the escaped beasts, and figure out just what is behind the seemingly dark magic rampages. And that's just one plotline in a film that has many.

But that can be forgiven since the movie is supposed to be the first in a series of five films. They need to set up a lot of things, like how magic in America is kept hidden, how those who practice it are segregated from the No-majs (segregation, because, America), and how a dark wizard has broken free in Europe, bent on exposing the magical world to the Muggles and taking over both. (The casting of that character is supposed to be a secret, though by now it's pretty much an open one. But, just in case, I'll just say I wonder if they're beginning to regret their casting choice in light of this past year's events, because I know the reveal didn't exactly fill me with excitement.)

This is the third Eddie Redmayne film I've seen in which he plays a character that never seems to look anyone in the eye. Newt is supposed to be shy and a bit awkward, hence the shifty looks, but it's an affectation that grows a bit tiresome. He also mumbles a lot, which meant I spent half the film wondering if I'd missed a key piece of dialogue.

Much more delightful is the performance of Dan Fogler as Kowalski, the cannery worker who dreams of opening a bakery. He's basically a stand-in for the audience, as he's exposed to more and more magic with wide-eyed wonder, and a what-the-hell-why-not attitude. Fogler's perfect comic timing also gives the movie the majority of its laughs.

Towards the end, the film gets a little too action-packed, with the city of New York (once again) on the verge of destruction. But there are enough moments of magic in the rest of the movie to make up for it, and it had me looking forward to the stories to come. Especially if Newt drops the mumbling, and pairs up with Kowalski.

Better yet, give Kowalski his own spin-off! Fantastic Feasts and Where to Eat Them. I'll be first in line.

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