Huzzah for FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM! This look at another part of the magical universe of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, penned by J.K. Rowling specifically for the screen, expands the mythos with the sort of wildly whimsical originality that we have come to expect from her. Added bonus, with no book as original source material, there’s wondering why elements were changed or omitted altogether. I’m still puzzled about why there was no mention of pumpkin juice in the first Potter adaptation and, yes, I know it’s way past time to let that go. On the other hand, if the Rowling were moved to produce a novelization of FBAWTFT, I would be first in line to buy it. Or try to be anyway.
Set in 1926 New York, it introduces us to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an eccentric devoté of the eponymous creatures, despite their being proscribed throughout the wizarding world for being dangerous. His trip, ostensibly to obtain a birthday present available nowhere else, soon goes awry when one of those beasts, the one that looks like a platypus and has a weakness for anything shiny, scampers away after being tempted by a shiny coin, and then another, and then a bank full of very shiny objects. As a result, Newt meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogel), a cannery worker with dreams of owning a bakery, and Tina Goldstein (Kartherine Waterston), an agent of the U.S branch of the Ministry of Magic, who arrests Newt for a plethora of violations regarding keeping the wizarding world a secret from muggles, or, as they’re known here, non-majes.
Not that there aren’t other threats to wizarding anonymity. There’s something knocking down buildings and digging trenches in the sidewalk with no regard for who is watching. Hot on the trail of that something, described as wind with eyes, is Mr. Graves (a grim Colin Farrell with a Prussian haircut and a unique take on wizard streetwear). Naturally, it’s just a matter of time before they all meet up with dour and dire results, particularly when The New Salem Preservation Society, a band of rabid witch-hunter led by Mary Lou Barebones (Samantha Mathis at her most dowdy) asserts itself by trying to secure the influence of the local paper to their cause.
There are many things to love here, starting with Redmayne. Peering uncertainly from beneath a wedge of curly hair erupting from his cranium, a perpetual half-smile on his lips, and a genteel embarrassment to his body language, his Newt is a charming misfit with a soft spot for his creatures, and an unexpectedly solid sense of resolve. As his newfound sidekick, Fogel is perfectly bemused with a dash of childlike delight in this hidden world that has suddenly revealed itself to him. He’s equally bemused and delighted by Queenie (sexy ad soulful Alison Sudol), Tina’s luscious cream cruller of a sister.
Also worthy of affection is Rowling’s trademark mixing of the real and the mystical. Both worlds are dealing with fanaticism and fascism, and those doing the darkest deeds are the ones most fully convinced that they are doing it for the greater good. On the one side, for example, Graves doggedly determined to slaughter the fabulous within Newt’s space-bending valise for the safety of all, on the other, Mary Lou beating her pasty-faced daughter and lugubrious son to keep them on the straight and narrow. There is also Rowling’s trademark, almost preternatural, gift for creating indelible characters and sparkling, pithy dialogue that are as captivating as any of the visual effects. Hence the palpable affection Newt has for a sensitively animated sentient bamboo sprout with attachment issues. If watching Redmayne do a mating pas de deux with a mountainous cross between a rhino and a firefly is almost worth the price of admission on its own, there is also something enchanting about seeing an ostrich running through the snow in Central Park. And if watching a building reassemble itself brick by brick with the attendant clicks and clacks is fascinating, and it is, it has nothing on the strudel that organizes itself from flour, water, sugar, and apples in mid-air before serving itself in all its golden brown glory.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE FIND THEM offers the rich panoply of an intricate, fast-moving plot rife with adventure, suspense, and the sweetest of romance. And not just between Newt and his bamboo shoot. I can’t wait to read the book.