One of the most anticipated films of the year lives up to expectations as a great expansion of the world author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling created with Harry Potter.
Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, the extraordinary wizard zoologist (magizoologist) who travels to New York City from his native England. His independent lifestyle is supplemented by his briefcase that acts as both a suitcase and a portable sanctuary for the magical creatures he captures.
Scamander’s goals revolve entirely around his love of animals, both magical and non-magical. He sees the coexistence of humanity and all animals as necessary and capable of being nurtured through study and exposure. His work culminates in a text he eventually publishes called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Redmayne brings an awkward and amiable element to a character who is not physically present for the Harry Potter film or book series, but whose voice lives on through his book that is a required textbook for young wizards, and was published in the real world by Rowling in 2001. He’s like the Steve Irwin of the wizarding world.
The audience surrogate for the film is a muggle–“no-Maj” to American wizards–called Mr. Kowalski (Dan Fogler). He is a baker who runs into Newt Scamander at a bank, while Scamander chases an escaped creature and accidentally switches briefcases with him. It’s entirely understandable that it happened when considering the chaos that Scamander instinctively finds, but it lassos Kowalski into the wizarding world and leaves him feeling how we do when the Uber driver deviates from the route guidance: confused, and taken down roads you never realized existed. Scamander is a blunt introduction to the magical; he opens up possibilities that Kowalski had been discouraged from pursuing in his life.
Of course, Scamander is not the only wizard in the United States, and he is quickly teamed up with a witch who goes by the name Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). She likes hot dogs, and that is not a euphemism. Another major player for Scamander is the American version of the Ministry of Magic and their Aurors (like a magical FBI). What, you didn’t think anyone would notice a bunch of magical creatures running amok in New York City? Enter Colin Farrell, American accent and contemporary hair style in tow.
The wizarding world is merged with the growth of the city; the film edits out all the familiar landmarks and shows the city close to how it existed in the mid-1920s (probably 1926). For the HP nerds, this is the year before Scamander’s book got published and also the year before the birth of one Lord Voldemort, so we’re dealing with an entirely different endgame enemy. This enemy is one we only know from stories: Gelert Grindelwald. For most of the film, the darkness of hatred comes from the fanatical “Second Salem” group who are intent on identifying and attacking suspected practicers of witchcraft.
So for full disclosure, I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd and own a Ravenclaw robe. It’s a given that I was looking forward to this film, however, I also have very specific, excessive opinions about every film adaptation of the book series. Having grown up a bookworm I felt a kinship with Hermione Granger and wanted to read several of the texts that she would regularly rattle on about. “Beasts” was one of those, and even though it was not published as a novel, it became one of the hallmarks of Rowling’s skill as a world-builder.
This film is directed by David Yates, who did every Harry Potter film from “Order of the Phoenix” to the final installment, “Deathly Hallows, part 2.” Fantastic Beasts fits in well with the magical universe he established with those four films, but it is also much brighter thanks to the presence of the animals. Every animal featured has its own presence and personality, even without language, and the audience becomes as familiar with the creatures as they do the characters. Rowling and Yates’ fantasy world is easy to want to escape into.
Each creature is reminiscent of a recognizable animal: a niffler is like a kleptomaniacal platypus, a bowtruckle is a little bit like a stick insect and will certainly be the baby Groot of 2016, another resembles a what might happen if a hippo bred with a narwhal. The eyes of these animals are animated with life and mischief, but also an apprehension of humanity. At the core of it, Scamander’s affection comes from the same apprehension of humanity, but his life’s work depends on the potential of optimism between the animal world and the human. As such, he comes up with inventive ways for capturing the creatures, ranging from play to a clever trick with a tea kettle.
The film has the potential to appeal to viewers of all ages from a purely fantastical perspective, but Rowling never hides the problems of humanity from her readers, nor does she hide them in her script. Child abuse is a big theme here, as is persecution and violent outbursts. Some viewers make take issue with the treatment of some of these issues because of how they are dealt with; it is not Rowling’s most nuanced take.
Another issue comes from Scamander himself. The character walks around with the bowtruckle in his front pocket in a similar fashion to the celery stick in the pocket of the Fifth Doctor in Doctor Who. He seems to be an adorable wizard by all accounts, but he is still a relatively thinly sketched version of what will surely be expanded upon in the sequels. He has all of the cuteness needed to make him appealing, but for now it isn’t enough to sustain a film.
Colin Farrell’s character will surely be the source of much controversy as well, especially in his treatment of Ezra Miller’s character, a quiet boy named Creedence. Questions of exploitation are asked, but the solution given is too flat in the circumstances, and the conclusion leaves a bit to be desired. The film as a whole might have benefitted from treating itself more as a contained story than it actually does. At times, there are too many plots, but they eventually come together by the end of the 2+ hour run time. If spectacle is the goal, and I believe that is always the goal for these first installments, then it has been achieved.