J.K. Rowling apparently intends to be the George Lucas of the ’10s and ’20s: A check of the Internet Movie Data Base reveals five (five) spinoffs of the Harry Potter saga in the new “Fantastic Beasts” series. Thank goodness, then, that the first “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has spirit, whimsy, excitement and pathos.
Chamelonic Eddie Redmayne leads the way as Newt Scamander, an Englishman in 1926 New York whose bottomless suitcase contains a zooful of remarkable creatures. Some escape, and wizard Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) chases him around Manhattan as he chases them.
The movie’s rife (too rife, perhaps) with subplots. Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) develops a yen for Kowalski, a muggle baker who befriends Newt and tries to be of use. (Dan Fogler makes him a comic Everyman, the normal audience’s entry to this weird world.)
A destructive creature – a kind of whirling energy force with terrifying power – terrorizes New York, while a mysterious wizard named Graves (Colin Farrell) wants to exploit it. Graves enlists Credence, an emotionally tortured young man (Ezra Miller), to help find it; he’s been adopted by a fanatical witch-hunter (Samantha Morton) who has somehow sniffed out the submerged magic community.
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Meanwhile, the infamous Gellert Grindlewald has escaped the wizards’ prison in Europe, and a newspaper tycoon (Jon Voight)...well, he’s just there to rant, at least in this installment.
The movie left me with questions I could not answer, and not the kind that would be resolved if I waited through more of the series. One example among many: The screenplay, Rowling’s first, makes it clear wizards execute other wizards for capital crimes – so why is Grindlewald alive?
But the time for questions comes only when the film has passed. The directing-editing team of David Yates and Mark Day did the last four Potter movies, and they understand how to evoke the atmosphere of that world without replicating it in a different setting. Composer James Newton Howard does the same for John Williams’ Potter scores.
The filmmakers beautifully balance goofy moments with Gothic darkness. Sometimes we’re seeing a kleptomaniac beast who resembles a platypus wreak havoc in a bank, or a rhino-esque creature become infatuated with Kowalski after he’s drenched in hormones. Sometimes we’re seeing life through the downcast eyes of Credence, whom nobody loves and nobody trusts.
We take a while to warm up to Newt, who like his namesake can be elusive. He speaks in soft bursts, some of which are hard to make out, never looking people in the eye and clearly remaining more comfortable with animals than humans. (Could Rowling intend for us to place him somewhere on the Asperger’s scale?) With his shock of hair, sidelong glances and shy, head-bobbing demeanor, he’s a bit of a fantastic beast himself, though one who will wear well over subsequent films.
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton.
Writer: J.K. Rowling.
Director: David Yates.
Length: 133 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (fantasy action violence).