Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable
The real challenge of making this film is to see if there is a real affection for the wizarding world JK Rowling created or if the magic was only with The Boy Who Lived.
And I am here to tell you, there is still magic in this world.
Taking place decades before the Harry Potter book series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the adventure of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a kind of "Wizard Conservationist" who sees the beauty and wonder in the magical beasts of the world apart from their simply utility to wizarding kind. Newt travels from England to New York City in the 1920's with a magical suitcase filled with a menagerie of eponymous fantastic beasts.. Tensions are high as there is a burgeoning war brewing from the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald. In addition to this, the American wizarding authorities, MACUSA, led by Queen Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and one of her head aurors Graves (Colin Farrell) are cracking down on loose beasts in the area. Along the way, Newt gets tangled up with a low-level and earnest auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) along with a non-magical wannabe baker Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Together they not only challenge each other but face a larger, more sinister threat.
To be clear, this movie is much more mature in theme and content than the Harry Potter stories. Yes, the original series had some severely dark moments. But those movies were ultimately about the journey from childhood into being an adult. Fantastic Beasts already plunges you in the labyrinth of international politics and complex social hierarchies. Newt is very much the outsider, like Harry. But Newt's oddness does not come from a lack of familiarity with the world. Instead he understands how the wizarding world works; he simply rejects their way of thinking.
One of the darker elements of the story revolves around Mary Lou Barebones (Samantha Morton) who wants to start a "Second Salem." She lives in a drab home where she abuses her adopted children Credence (Ezra Miller), Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), and Chastity (Jenn Murray). This abuse is not just emotional, but physical, especially for the gun-shy Credence. In most movies, the family home would be adorned with a plethora of religious imagery and Mary Lou would quote scripture constantly as she abused her children. I was relieved and thankful that all religious imagery was absent from these scenes. Rowling has been wise to avoid bringing in any explicit traditional religion into her stories (like JRR Tolkien) so as not to distract from her overall point.
Despite the darkness, the movie is actually a great deal of fun. The beasts we encouter are wonderfully imaginative and enjoyable to watch. Director David Yates, having directed half of the Harry Potter films, knows how to use the special effects well. He also understands that we need to see something different than we have before. That is why transporting this movie to a whole different era gives the movie a nice visual flourish.
I must admit that Redmayne did a fine job as the lead. His performance is reminiscent of the mischievous demeanor of Matt Smith's portrayal in Doctor Who. Newt is reckless, but he makes up for it with his enthusiasm for his beasts and for his friends.
A lot of credit needs also to go to Fogler as Kowalski. I have been a fan of Fogler for years and have been hoping that his work would eventually get more attention. He is an expressive and physical comic. Watching his wonder and discovering the magic around him is delightful. And on top of that, there Fogler was able to convey the fear and sadness of the character at the same time. Waterston cannot help but be endearing in her excessive earnestness to do what is right and Sudol sufficiently flighty without being ditzy.
Farrell's performance is a bit one-note, but as he did when he played the Daredevil villain Bullseye, he brings an incredible amount of charisma to make up for it. Miller's performance is the one that suffers the most from the script. He is put upon and abused, like a super-dark version of what the Dursleys did to Harry. But the performance feels week and stiff.
The film suffers most when it feels like it is trying to make some kind of social commentary. While the above example of the New Salem Society isn't explicitly religious, it feels a bit like a knock against fundamentalist Christians. MACUSA has strict laws against wizards and non-wizards intermarrying, which feels like shot at the way many Americans view traditional marriage. Credence's struggle with "darkness" he feels inside which he is suppressing feels like a metaphor for a homosexual child being forced to deny his orientation because of his overbearing parents.
Perhaps I am inferring too much from all of this. Perhaps I am being too sensitive to potential noxious messages. As I said, Rowling is smart enough not to try and pick a fight. She in interested in telling a good story.
And the story does take some nice twists and turns. It is nice to watch a movie where the conclusion has some unexpected elements to it.
This film is meant to be the first part of a five part series. As a result, there is much that is left open-ended.
But because the movie is as good as it is, I do not mind. In fact, I am looking forward to the next adventure of Newt Scamander.
When he returns with his Fantastic Beasts, I'll be sure to find them.
4 out of 5 stars.