Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

From J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world

It’s been well over decade since Harry Potter bedazzled moviegoers (both young and old), the mega-budget film franchise (based on British novelist J.K. Rowling’s treasured seven-part book series) becoming an instant overnight sensation, one that grossed over 7 billion dollars worldwide — talk about conjuring up a pretty penny! Folding in 2011 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, it seemed as though the pages had closed on our wand-whirling protagonist (cinematically speaking), the story wrapping up somewhat tidily. But, I guess there’s nothing a smidgen of ‘franchise craze Fluxweed’ and a dab of ‘origin story fairy dust’ can’t revive. So, just like that, Presto! The show goes on!

Piggybacking off the success of the Harry Potter movie saga, Rowling’s whimsical world of high-flying magic is back, filmmakers (this time) using a 2001 companion booklet (only 128-pages long) as inspiration, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them emerging as a sprawling adventure that’s brimming with spectacular sights, enthralling set pieces and (of course) fantastical beasts, the movie bound to enchant those hungry Pottermore fans all over again.

'Polly want a cracker?'
‘Polly want a cracker?’

Set in 1926 (70 years before Harry Potter’s initial adventure), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows quirky, soft-spoken Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an introverted intellectual who prefers the company of supernatural creatures as opposed to his fellow witches and wizards. Although a favored student of Albus Dumbledore, we meet Newt after he’s been kicked out of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (for endangering human life) having since set off on a quest to compile a definitive primer, one that documents all of the charmed beasties in the land — the infamous handbook going on to become a set academic text at the said school.

Armed with a tattered brown leather suitcase — that holds a number of mythical monsters — Newt ventures to a pre-Great Depression New York City for ‘business.’ After accidentally exchanging briefcases with a bashful No-Maj (the American term for Muggle) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) at a large bank, a handful of Newt’s nasties escape, the vermin causing all sorts of mayhem across the city; the first being an adorable yet destructive Niffler, a rodent-meets-platypus with a liking for things that shine — this critter sure to amuse the youngins. Alas, mystic animals running amuck is a big ‘no-no’ for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), the bureaucracy convinced that Newt’s ‘baggage’ is in violation of U.S. customs, the creatures threatening to expose the entire wizarding community. That’s when Congress workers, charred Auror Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and shady Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) follow Newt’s breadcrumb trail, the pair individually seeking to put an end to the perilous mishap by returning all of Newt’s beasts and putting the outsider behind bars before it’s too late.

In amongst the scamper, there’s also a less engaging subplot that sees Newt and his unofficial partner, Jacob, get mixed up in a segregation feud that brings them face-to-face with a eugenic anti-witchcraft faction (New Salem Philanthropic Society) that plans on exposing, and ridding the world of, Wiccans.

Gotta catch 'em all!
Gotta catch ’em all!

As a film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rather layered, shockingly dark and perhaps too frightening for youngsters, some of the imagery (particularly within the film’s dour last act) clearly too scary, too; a sign that the narrative itself may be maturing with its core audience. Likewise, some of the movie’s heady themes are bound to zip over the heads of little ones, the story exploring bigotry, fear of those who are different and the danger of concealing one’s true self, this suppression (here) growing into something destructive and uncontrollable. Written by J.K. Rowling — this being her first-ever screenplay — Fantastic Beasts is buzzing with potential, even if the plot itself (sometimes) feels choked in exposition, viewers anxiously left waiting for the next immersive set piece to take flight. Furthermore, with no tangible or easily identifiable adversary (for the most part, anyway), and lackluster antagonists all-round — a problem that’s already been rectified, seeing as Johnny Depp is confirmed to play chief villain Gellert Grindelwald in future episodes — proceedings occasionally muddle along in a ho-hum manner.

But don’t fret; it’s not all doom and gloom as Fantastic Beasts fuses the dark with the light — so, naturally, there’s plenty of cheeky humor and fun to be had, chiefly when the story focuses on Newt, who’s tracking his runaway fiends. A scene that sees our heroes try to tame a blubbery Erumpent (a rhinoceros-type beast) on an icy NYC lake is a nerve-jangling hoot, while Potter-heads will totally eat up the cake crumbs nods and winks to the interconnected Potter-verse that have artfully been sprinkled throughout. The biggest showstopper, however, is a trip down the suitcase itself, viewers venturing into the radiant realm of the rare spices, this sequence beautifully bewitching and ravishingly realized. On a design level, Newt’s beasts are truly ‘fantastic’ — from the opulent eagle-like Thunderbird, whose glimmering wings generate roaring storms in the presence of danger, to the Occamy, an aquamarine serpentine-bodied reptile that can grow or shrink depending on its environment — each creature set apart by its own quirk or awe-inspiring eccentricity.

Meet the next Bond villain
Meet the next Bond villain

Captained by Potter veteran David Yates (who steered films five through eight), the American wizarding world is brought to life in vivid detail, the behind-the-scenes team casting a lively spell over all facets of production. A seamless blend of VFX hocus-pocus and practical sets, the bustling jazzy 1920s backdrop is visually sparkling, the world-building exhaustive, and the action stupendous, Yates utilizing Rowling’s far-reaching already-established lore to set the stage for a plethora of stories to come, the adventure playing out like an extension of the universe rather than a cash-grab spin-off. Moreover, the score by James Newton Howard, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), puts a unique spin on the mystical melodies synonymous with the Harry Potter brand, haunting compositions fashioned by legendary composer John Williams some fifteen years ago.

With no Daniel Radcliffe in sight, Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (2014), does a majority of the flick’s heavy lifting as our new protagonist Newt Scamander, the 34-year-old Brit fostering a kooky kinda likability whilst coming across as heroic and adept. Another treat is Dan Fogler, Fanboys (2009), who portrays over-cooked cannery worker Jacob Kowalski, an innocent No-Maj who dreams of one day becoming a baker, until he finds himself caught in the midst of Newt’s spellbinding mission — Fogler supplying the majority of the film’s comic relief. Katherine Waterston, Steve Jobs (2015), is also good (albeit a bit of a stick-in-the mud) as Tina Goldstein, a disgraced Auror trying to regain her status (this putting her directly in Newt’s path), whilst alternative singer-songwriter Alison Sudol shines bright as Tina’s free-spirited roommate and younger sister Queenie, a Legilimens who can read minds, Queenie finding herself drawn to Fogler’s wide-eyed Jacob. Elsewhere, Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), plays against type as the withdrawn Credence, the abused middle child of the vociferous narrow-minded leader of the cult-like Second Salemers, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton).

The real Al Capone
The real Al Capone

We’re also introduced to the Shaws; newspaper magnate Henry Sr., portrayed by Jon Voight, Holes (2003), father of U.S. senator Henry Shaw Jr. and Langdon Shaw, played by Josh Cowdery, Godzilla (2014), and Ronan Raftery, The Siege of Jadotville (2016), respectively, the latter trying to convince his dad of the fantastical world that’s veiled under citizen’s noses — these guys possibly having more to do in later chapters. Last but not least, Ron Perlman, Hellboy (2004), has a marvelous little bit part as a CGI goblin gangster named Gnarlack, a cigar-chomping mob boss who runs a magical speakeasy in Harlem.

When all is said and done, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stands as a triumphant return to Rowling’s immense kingdom, the film catering to those loyal Potter fanatics who have anxiously been waiting for something new to feed their obsessions — although, I don’t know how filmmakers are going to stretch this story out for another four (already proposed) installments. With only a few missteps — including a cluttered narrative, weak baddies and one too many endings — Fantastic Beasts is still a thrilling, inventive and enjoyable post-Summer blockbuster. So, pull out your plastic wands and dust off those old Hogwarts cosplays as Potter-mania is about to make a comeback.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia