“My philosophy is if you worry, you suffer twice.” ~ Newt Scamander
“Mr. Scamander, do you know anything about the wizarding community in America? We don’t like things loose.” ~ Porpentina Goldstein
“So you’re the guy with the case full of monsters, huh?” ~ Gnarlack
“What did you do today, Jacob? I was inside a suitcase.” ~ Jacob Kowalski
“There’s strange things going on all over the city. People behind this are not like you and me. There’s a hidden society. It goes back centuries.” ~ Mary Lou Barebone
“We live in the shadows for too long.” ~ Percival Graves
When J.K. Rowling finished her series about that boy wizard with the lightning scar and the two best friends with Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, she said that was the end of the line for her with that world, and so moved on to other literary genres, both under her own name and under a penname. And yet the world of Potter kept drawing her back time and again, whether it was tidbits of information at her site, or the more recent stage play that she’s had a hand in. And then there is the new movie Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the first of several to come, set decades before the Potter film adaptations, and featuring familiar elements in a new context and setting. The film is directed by David Yates, who has a whole lot of experience in this area, having had directed the last four of the Potter films.
In 1926, we meet the young wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s stopping in New York City on his way west. This is a New York not quite our own, as it features those who warn against witches and wizards (which, admittedly, might have been going on two or three centuries earlier in those parts, but not in the Jazz Age). A chance encounter leads to misplaced suitcases with what we’d call a Muggle, but what in America is called a No-Maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). The two men mistakenly take the other’s suitcases, which touches off a storm of chaos in the Big Apple when several creatures escape from Newt’s suitcase.
Rowling wrote the screenplay for this, delving deep into the background of the Potter verse and bringing out something new along the way. The title is actually taken from a textbook mentioned in the Potter books- one that Rowling later published as a false document- and Newt is derived from that back story, something of an odd and awkward fellow who comes into his own. Rowling very much sets the story in the Potter verse, with references and name drops along the way including Hogwarts, Dumbledore, and the Lestrange family, while taking things in a new direction by setting the action in America. This first film, slated to be the first of five, does feel a bit like an exercise in world building- we see the magical world decades earlier than what we were first introduced to in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, and the magical bureaucracy of America is different than what we’ve seen in the British Ministry of Magic, though there are some similarities.
The story weaves in themes of friendship, different worlds, and intolerance- best personified in the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group that certainly comes across as extreme in their ways, seeing no particular wrong in killing witches or wizards, let alone being abusive towards children. The latter is a nod of sorts to the Dursley’s general poor treatment of Harry Potter, though comparatively speaking, the narrow minded Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is much worse. Family is also a theme running through the film, with a sharp contrast between the harsh Mary Lou, who mistreats her children, and the close relationship between the magical Goldstein sisters
Yates, having had handled the last four of the Potter films, is back in familiar territory with this, returning to the magical world for a jaunt back in time. That includes the rules of the Potter world in terms of magic, the intrigues and tell tales that hint at what’s to come. And he handles it very well, taking the world of magic and bringing it face to face with New York and the unfolding jazz era. I like the way he brings that jazz era back to life- while meshing it with witches, wizards, and strange creatures, perhaps most perfectly colliding in one character, the sardonic goblin Gnarlack, who strides in both worlds, also running a speakeasy (and voiced by the ideal Ron Perlman).
The special effects crew do their part in bringing that world to life and making it feel like it’s right there with New York in the era, something that was done here and there in the Potter films with scenes set squarely in the Muggle world. The creatures are indeed fantastic, and strange, and do seem to occupy the space with the actors and landscape, which of course is essential in this kind of story- we’re a long way from Ray Harryhausen’s era of effects. One of my personal favourite composers, James Newton Howard, composes the score for the film. He’s a newcomer to this magical world, and yet makes the score his own, offering hints of the Potter themes before taking things entirely in new directions.
The Potter films were blessed with a wealth of great casting, and the same applies here, given that so many of the franchise’s senior creative personnel are involved again in the production. Samantha Morton, who’s done a mix of independent and big feature films on both sides of the Atlantic, gets to play a character we dislike, the narrow minded abusive Mary Lou, a normal human with a dark agenda of her own. Ezra Miller plays her adopted son Credence, who harbours secrets and mysteries about himself that unfold as the film plays out.
Colin Farrell has seemed to be absent from films for a good long while, or maybe he’s just been doing films I haven’t been aware of. It’s good to see him back again, in a role that requires him to play the character with different nuances. Percival Graves is an auror, a sort of magical policeman with little humour or patience, it seems, and yet there’s something else under the surface, something that the actor plays around with as the story goes along. There’s a brief appearance by Johnny Depp as well, playing Gellert Grindlewald, a character referenced in the Potter books as a dark wizard, and a malevolent threat yet to come. His appearance here is a hint of what the actor can do with him, and a worthy villain.
Dan Fogler gets the comic relief buddy role of Jacob Kowalski, and I like what he does with it. Here we have an ordinary man, an aspiring baker who’s thrown into the world of magic, something he had no idea even existed, by a trick of fate, and he seems to thrive in it despite everything. The actor brings a rich sense of humour to the role, and I couldn’t help but like the character.
Alison Sudol plays Queenie Goldstein, a bombshell as well as a witch, whose speciality tends to lean towards magical telepathy. In the hands of another character, that skill could be dangerous, but Queenie is a big hearted witch, a free spirit with a good heart. She has surprisingly good chemistry with Jacob.
Her sister Porpentina is played by Katherine Waterston, and the actress gets a good role to play. Demoted previously despite her best efforts, she’s eager to get back into the good graces of her bosses. She’s down to earth and sensible, loyal and strong willed, and finds herself pulled between doing the right thing and serving her own career ambitions. The actress has good chemistry with her leading man, and ultimately I’d like to see where things go.
Which brings us to the surprise. Eddie Redmayne’s been busy soaking up Oscar glory and all sorts of accolades, but the only film I’d previously seen him in was that wretched musical version of Les Miserables, which I hated, and I remember particularly disliking his take on Marius, to the point where I wanted someone to strangle him. To be fair though, I was probably heavily influenced by that dislike of musicals thing that I have. Here I like what he does with Newt, an awkward sort of fellow, seemingly outcast in the world, but one who proves to come into his own in an unusual situation and rise to the occasion. He’s resourceful and quick to move, soft spoken but ultimately courageous, and Redmayne gives the character a deft, human touch that makes the audience like the character. Where things go for him from here is a question we’ll have to wait and see.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them may be an ungainly title for a movie, but the film itself is fun, bringing back the tone of the Potter films, where magic exists quietly in secret alongside the ordinary world. It gives us a likeable protagonist, a hint of a formidable villain, and a strong cast that invest their performances with humour and humanity. While it might spend time world building and self referencing itself, the film makes me want to see more of what’s to come.