Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

“Yesterday, a wizard entered New York with a case. This case full of magical creatures. And unfortunately, some have escaped.”

Since 2001, actually, since 1997 when the first book in what would shortly thereafter come to be known as the Wizarding World, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (in the United States titled Sorcerer’s Stone) would kick off a global phenomenon that has grossed billions of dollars in revenue and has found ways to stay relevant well beyond the final film’s release in 2011 with The Deathly Hallows Part 2. While Harry Potter’s story would come to a close theatrically, the universe in which author J. K. Rowling would create has an astounding number of possibilities to explore. 

Enter the fictional author of a Hogwarts school textbook titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Set decades earlier when the characters we all have come to know and adore haven’t even been born yet in 1920’s New York, Newt, a magizoologist has come to the States to bid farewell to a friend of his in Arizona. For wizards and their human counterparts, nicknamed “No-Mag”, of course that’s the best Americans can do, “Muggle” is easily a better term for non-magic folk, times are tough, tensions are at an all-time high thanks to the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) wreaking havoc between the groups. Trust is a taboo word.

For the majority of the events that take place in Fantastic Beasts, Grindelwald disguises himself as an auror named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who works for the Magical Congress of the United States, MACUSA for short. 

So far, the American terms haven’t screamed unique and memorable that the British wizards across the pond have come up with. But that’s just me.

5 years without any stories residing in said Wizarding World and yet the staying power of the franchise is what makes it more relevant than ever before, more so than when the film series was at its highest point. Every 2 years we could count on the next installment based on the 7-part series and subsequently, everyday a Harry Potter fan is born. The lapse in time between Deathly Hallows and Fantastic Beasts only solidified what this world means – once the film opens, the magic is back as if it never took a nice holiday off. 

Returning from the half decade big screen hiatus is director David Yates who also directed the final four Potter films (2 of which are the least like the novel in many ways, while the final 2 are the best of the series). With a script by the author herself, Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first screenplay, which in hindsight is an enigma because she’s the best qualified to tell a new story in this world and the screenplay happens to be the films weak spot. 

Immediately, when jumping back into the wizarding world, the one aspect that stands out in Fantastic Beasts is the potential. When the focus is on the beasts themselves, the film soars. Following the niffler scurrying around a bank stealing coins, gold bars and any other valuable item not bolted down is exactly what was promised with the film. Creatures that we’ve only read about and barely touched upon in the films are given more emphasis and care. While when the meat and potatoes of the story is switched to, a bit of magic is lost, but not much. Newt being Newt, played so charmingly sweet and mysteriously by Redmayne, coming off his turn in The Danish Girl and Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, is the epitome of what Hagrid would be to these creatures in Hogwarts so many years later. One of the only wizards without a secret agenda, Newt is the basis for creature rights and discrimination.

Even given the opportunity to showcase his mating skills.

Joining Newt reluctantly is a dismissed auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who prides herself on her convictions. The two are faced with re-collecting a few fantastic beasts who pry themselves loose when Newt bumps into a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). All Jacob wanted to do was open a bakery and he stumbles into a secret world beyond his understanding and imagination. He also meets the one-of-a-kind Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Legilimens and Tina’s younger sister. 

Dan Fogler channels all muggles childlike curiosity and wonder with every magical discovery he comes across. He’s a kid in a candy store given enough money to buy whatever he wants. His eyes widen and the smile stretches across his face like when Chris Farley talks about brake pads in Tommy Boy. 

For the most part, Harry Potter held a lighter tone throughout the 8 films. Fantastic Beasts, however, explores social dilemmas that we deal with every day. Prejudice and bigotry on both sides is only something that is touched upon in Harry’s version of this world. These are perhaps darker times for wizard kind. On one front facing The Second-Salemers” led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted children cult and the physical villain known as an Obscurus disguised as a boy named Credence (Ezra Miller), and on the other a more powerful dark wizard than he-who-must-not-be-named himself.

The idea of telling a story that’s not focused on school-aged children in a dark and eerie century old castle is fascinating. The design of this decade blends well with the already vintage aesthetic the world has been blanketed in with color that pops off screen. 1920’s Manhattan looks brand new with shiny marble everything and towering skyscrapers. Eyes will instantly recognize the familiar wizard tricks that ordinary objects wouldn’t normally have. It’s like no time passed at all. As if Yates and Rowling are welcoming us all back for another year at the famed school we all know from crevice to tower. There’s even hints at friendly magical rivalry between Hogwarts and Ilvermoney. Name dropping will only provide a tease here leaving most Potter-heads begging for more juicy details.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them accomplishes what Sorcerer’s Stone did 15 years prior – establishes a world with a mythology that’s full of potential. Rowling bites off more than she can chew as a first-time screenwriter, but the magic is still alive and more spectacular than ever. More spells, creatures, and lore, please. Set to be a 5-film franchise, Fantastic Beasts gets off on the right paw with a charismatic cast leading the way.

Written By: J. K. Rowling

Directed By: David Yates

Music By: James Newton Howard

Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Pearlman, Colin Farrell

Where to Watch: HBO Max

Release Date: November 18, 2016

Running Time: 2 Hours 13 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

My Score: 3.5 out of 5

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