When word got out that J. K. Rowling was writing screenplays for not just one, but a whole series of feature films based on a slim bestiary that she’d spun off from the Potterverse as a charity fundraiser, a wave of cynicism predictably arose in response. Plenty of moviegoers had been less than charmed by the way that the cinematic manifestations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit had been inflated into an overbusy trilogy to capitalize on Peter Jackson’s previous success with putting The Lord of the Rings onscreen. Never mind the fact that Rowling was already wealthier than the Queen of England; many skeptics presumed that making multiple movies out of the Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was merely a formulaic money-grubbing scheme with flimsy likelihood of producing anything worth seeing.
Well, guess again. While true believers in the wizarding world already fleshed out in the Harry Potter books and movies will likely get the most out of David Yates’ new Fantastic Beasts – especially on first viewing – the film has turned out to be a lush, complex, gorgeously enjoyable spectacle, with underlying depths clearly destined for much stirring in the sequels to come.
It’s no big surprise for Rowling’s fanbase that she turned to the writing of a hardboiled crime series – the Cormoran Strike novels, under the pen name of Robert Galbraith – not long after finishing the Potter heptad. It’s only the supernatural elements in the Potter books that make them categorizable as “fantasy”; structurally, they have much more in common with the mystery genre. Arguably, Rowling’s greatest narrative gift is her capacity for anticipating the big picture way up front and laying extremely detailed groundwork that sometimes doesn’t yield a juicy payoff until several volumes later. That’s why Potter fans find that her books amply reward multiple rereadings: All the clues are laid out for those with eyes to see them, but they’re delightfully subtle.
Similarly, her screenplay for the first Fantastic Beasts movie pulls off the magical feat of being largely setup, even while it entertains our socks off. Even newbies to the Potterverse will be able to wallow in its dark visual dazzle, while established fans will be keeping one eye and ear open for the links to things that they know or suspect about the wizarding world and its pre-Potter history. If you don’t already get goosebumps at the first notes of “Hedwig’s Theme” in the opening credits, fret not: You’re still in for a thrill ride, seasoned with the sort of humor – exquisitely British, even when set in Jazz Age Manhattan – and eccentric characterization at which the author excels.
Even if you typically give fantasy/sci-fi fandom a wide berth, you probably already know the basic premise: A geeky, gawky young scientist – a magizoologist, to be precise – named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York in 1926 carrying a capacious suitcase full of magical creatures, most of them endangered species and some of them more dangerous to humans than Newt is willing to admit. He inadvertently swaps it with a sample case set down in a bank by a Muggle (or No-Maj, as they are rather annoyingly and unpronounceably called in the US) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Several creatures escape and chaos ensues. Newt is stalked and arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katharine Waterston), an employee of MACUSA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, and his errant beasts are blamed for the destruction to the City concurrently being caused by a mysterious dark force called an Obscurus.
Most of the rollicking fun in Fantastic Beasts occurs as Newt and Jacob try to recapture the escaped creatures. A cute duck-billed marsupial called a Niffler, irresistibly attracted to shiny objects, leads them a merry chase that ends up in the demolition of a jewelry shop. Efforts to track down a rhinoceroslike female Erumpent, in heat and at large in the Central Park Zoo, become rather alarming for Jacob when he spills some of the Erumpent pheromone that Newt has been using as a lure onto his own person. A Demiguise – the intermittently visible creature whose silky fur is used to weave invisibility cloaks like Harry’s – gets up to a lot of mischief in a string of sight gags (or unsight gags) on the City streets.
That’s the surface level of the story. Digging a little deeper, we find the American wizarding world in turmoil over issues of secrecy and security while the pre-Voldemort big bad guy, anti-Muggle fascist Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, in a tiny cameo), is trying to foment war. Grindelwald’s mole in MACUSA, an auror named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), wants Newt and Tina dead; he also has a suspicious relationship with Credence (Ezra Miller), the troubled adopted son of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a “Second Salemer” anti-magic zealot. A powerful family of New York politicos (headed by Jon Voight’s character) is also involved, and will likely play more of a role in the sequels.
Analogues to the current sociopolitical scene in the US are there for the noting, if you want topical relevance; but the movie’s depiction of the Prohibition era is a much tastier audience draw. There’s a great scene in a magical speakeasy called the Blind Pig, and James Newton Howard’s John Williamsesque score is peppered with period tunes. One major character – Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a not-so-dumb-blonde legilimens (magical mindreader) who takes a fancy to Jacob – is played as a straight-up flapper à la Betty Boop, and nearly steals the whole movie. Fogler proves a wonderfully baffled Muggle foil, alternately intimidated and enticed by the hazards and charms of the wizarding world.
Then there’s Redmayne: for many viewers, probably reason enough to check out Fantastic Beasts. As we already know from his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, he’s a prodigiously talented physical actor, and he gives Newt a winningly awkward way of standing and moving. The character is too nice and well-meaning to be an antihero, but he has flaws big enough to make him interesting. It will be great fun to watch him develop in future installments – reportedly headed for Paris next.
If you’re a confirmed Potterhead, you’ll be spending the waiting time speculating over geeky details like whether Professor Dumbledore’s doomed sister Ariana was afflicted with an Obscurus. Since a young Dumbledore is heavily rumored to be joining the cast, we’ll soon find out. How nice to know that the magic never really ends.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com.