My apologies at the outset to the gazillions of Harry Potter fans out there. I’m not one of you. I’m not Potter hater; I’m just not a Potter lover. My ambivalence to the multimedia juggernaut came with the first film, Harry Potter and the Whatever. I sipped the Kool-Aid and I thought, “It’s okay but it’s not for me.” So I skipped all the other Harry films that followed. That being said, if you are a Potter lover, you’re probably not going to like my review of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. However, you are still most welcome to comment but please keep it civil.
In case you haven’t heard, the latest film penned by J.K. Rowling is a prequel to the Harry Potter series, taking place in New York City in 1926, a good 70 years before Harry, Hermione and Ron enter the doors of Hogwarts for the first time. The book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, which, presumably, is about the beasts themselves and not about the adventures of an Englishman in New York, was published in 2001 under the pseudonym of its fictitious author, magizoologist Newt Scamander. The book is supposedly required reading at Hogwarts and Scamander’s name is mentioned in passing in one of the latter Harry Potter books.
In the film, Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING; THE DANISH GIRL) stars as Scamander. As the story opens, Scamander is arriving at the Port of New York with a battered suitcase in hand. He’s not walking the streets too long before something pries open the sides of the case and escapes. It’s a niffler, a cuddly cross between a platypus and a mole that has a penchant for stealing shiny things like gold coins and diamond jewellery. As Scamander tries to get the creature back in his Tardis-like box, he crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a “no-maj” (American for “muggle”, or, for the unaware, someone who is not a wizard) who happens to be carrying a similar suitcase. The two men accidently swap cases and when Kowalski opens what he thinks is his case, he inadvertently releases a menagerie of other fantastic beasts onto the streets of the city.
The police and MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States), though, have bigger problems than just a burgling mystical creature and his associates. An eerie force has been wreaking havoc on the city, tearing up streets, obliterating housing blocks and even killing a US senator. The Dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, is believed to be behind the mayhem, though Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, THE LOBSTER) thinks it’s an obscurus, an ethereal black force that hides out in young children who attempt to conceal their magic for fear of persecution. If it is an obscurus, Scamander doesn’t want it harmed because he thinks it can be contained and cared for in his private refuge. The rest of the film is just a race to see who can get to the obscurus first. Along the way, Scamander has to scoop up his remaining truant beasts, meet and team up with failed Auror (a Ministry agent charged with pursuing and apprehending Dark wizards) Porpetina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), evade incarceration (or worse) by MACUSA, deal with Jacob now knowing too much about the world of magic, and somehow right everything that’s gone wrong since his arrival on American soil. If it sounds like a lot to fit into 2-1/4 hours, it is. On top of that, Rowling has thrown in plenty of hints to future storylines, including Scamander’s former lover; Tina’s employment history; a blossoming relationship between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol); and, of course, Grindelwald himself, who makes a brief appearance in this film’s closing act.
To its credit, the fantastic beasts are wonderfully creative. There’s a creature that looks like an American bison with the face of a squid (its name escapes me), a bowtruckle (a “Groot”-like tree branch), a hippogryph (a cross between a golden eagle and a horse), an erumpent (a cross between a hippo and a rhino with glow-in-the-dark skin) and a bar-full of house-elves. On the acting side, Redmayne brings his usual A-game to his character. I’m guessing that Scamander is somewhere on the autism spectrum, perhaps even having Asperger syndrome. There seem to be a number of clues: he’s left-eye dominant, he struggles making direct eye-contact with people, and he has a specialised interest where he can work alone. (My observations are based on personal experiences with people who have Asperger’s and are not meant to imply a diagnosis.) We’ll presumably learn more about his medical condition in upcoming films. Newcomer Sudol and Fogler steal the film though with their budding romance. We don’t know if Rowling plans to bring them back for the next film though the final scene of this film suggests that she will. The film’s weak link is Waterston who is as cheerful as a pailful of used floor cleaner. We know we’ll be seeing more of her as she becomes Mrs. Scamander in a future installment. That’s not a spoiler. I found it on one of the Harry Potter fan pages.
All told, I didn’t hate this film. I just didn’t like it all that much. The story is unnecessarily convoluted and it may be a bit too dark for young children. Leaving FANTASTIC BEASTS, I felt as ambivalent about the film as I did after I saw the first Harry Potter film. I doubt I’ll be seeing the other four films due to be released in this series. However, I do have up to 2024 to change my mind.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:00.)
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