Directed by: David Yates
Premise: A spinoff of the Harry Potter series. Occurring seventy years before the events of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, writer and naturalist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) travels to the United States with a case full of magical creatures which eventually escape.
What Works: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an attempt to work within the magical world of Harry Potter but outside of the Boy Who Lived storyline. The movie is mostly successful at opening up the story world and it recaptures much of what was appealing about the Harry Potter tales while spinning an altogether different story. At the title implies, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them showcases the wildlife of the wizarding world. The creature design is impressive. The animals are magical but they are also credible, resembling something we might see in the pages of National Geographic. They are also rendered very well with impressive texture and detail. The beasts are cared for Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. The actor is very good in the role. He plays the part with an intellectual aloofness that ought to be off-putting but is actually very charming. That’s partly due to the love that Newt clearly has for these animals and the filmmakers effectively play on that appeal in his character. Newt is paired with Kowalski, a non-magical baker played by Dan Fogler. His character is the proxy for the audience and Fogler is very funny and makes for an effective foil to Redmayne. One of the themes to be found throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories is the idea that children who are not properly loved turn into monsters and that idea continues in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We’re introduced to Mary Lou, the headmistress of an orphanage who puts the children to work in a campaign to expose and persecute the magical world. The orphans who have magical talents are forced to conceal their abilities and that suppression eventually turns violent. This is a potent metaphor of the way repressive upbringings can cause greater problems than they seek to solve.
What Doesn’t: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first entry in a planned five-film series. The picture is strained by the need to introduce all of the characters and organizations and establish how all of these people relate to one another and where they are located within these various hierarchies. The movie opens with newspaper headlines about a renegade dark wizard. This is intended to be going on in the background but the film doesn’t address it very well until it comes roaring out of nowhere in the climax. This is a poor imitation of the way Voldemort’s gradual resurrection was worked into the plots of the Harry Potter films. Other elements of this story don’t make sense or are underdeveloped. There is a hint that there is some overlap between the magical and non-magical world, most notably in the newspaper publisher played by Jon Voight. His son is running for a US Senate seat and they get wrapped up in the magical mayhem. There’s also some strange plot developments in the magical world. At one point the lead characters are arrested and charged with treason. Apparently there’s no due process in the magical world because Inspector Graves (Colin Farrell) is able to order the execution of alleged criminals without any trial or oversight. The ending of Fantastic Beasts has several problems. For one thing, the movie ends on a literal deus ex machina conclusion in which the mayhem of the climax is miraculously undone. This is a typical problem with magic in fantasy movies; it allows storytellers an easy way out of a narrative problem. The ending also includes a reveal involving a key character that retroactively creates a handful of logical problems.
Bottom Line: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the better entries in this series. It’s better than about half of the Harry Potter films. With the basic groundwork laid for other installments, hopefully the filmmakers will continue to open up the fantasy world.
Episode: #624 (December 4, 2016)