Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Before Harry Potter, There Was Newt Scamander
I don’t think I’m dreaming…I ain’t got the brains to make this up.
J.K. Rowling’s took the world by storm with her fantastical vision of Hogwarts and a magical world that we all desperately longed to live in. In fact, the Harry Potter series was so good and so iconic that I was more than a little skeptical about doing a prequel series, that might tarnish the beloved series as The Hobbit prequels only seemed to diminish the grander of Lord of the Rings. Or how The Phantom Menace utterly desecrated Star Wars.
Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston
Thankfully my fears proved groundless. Fantastic Beasts directed by David Yates, who did a number of the Harry Potter films, and set in New York City 70 years before Harry receives that letter from Hogwarts, manages to fit perfectly within the magical world we’ve seen before while paving utterly new ground. Newt Scamander (a rumpled and floppy haired Eddie Redmayne) has come to America on steamer ship to continue his study and collection of magical creatures, who all live in a suitcase.
Unfortunately, a mishap with Muggle/NoMaj Kowalkski (Dan Fogler in a nuanced and affecting performance) means the suitcase goes missing and some of the creatures are set loose, earning him the ire of recently demoted aurora, a dark wizard catcher, Tina (Katherine Waterston of Steve Jobs and Inherent Vice). Moreover there’s an anti-witch campaign being sponsored by Mary Lou Barebone (a terrifying turn by Samantha Morton).
Needless to say, the visuals are spectacular. The 20’s setting only adds to the feeling of enchantment as Kowalski and the audience see a whole new universe unfold before our eyes. Without giving too much away, what you see inside Mr. Scamander’s suitcase actually manages to hold its own against Hogwarts castle in the sense of the wonder and delight it elicits. But the film doesn’t just create some truly fabulous new CGI creatures but a wonderful tapestry of new characters and new motifs.
Colin Farrell and Erza Miller
Eddie Redmayne isn’t just adorably rumpled as Newt, he also showcases an incredible capacity for physical comedy in such moments where he tries to imitate the mating behavior of an Erumpent. (Trust me-you have to be there.) Colin Farrell is looking fitter and trimmer than we’ve seen him in years as the sinister official Graves. Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is compelling as Mary Lou Barebone’s troubled adopted son, Credence.
The biggest surprise though, is singer-songwriter Alison Sudol making her film debut. As Tina’s flirty, mind-reading sister, Queenie, Sudol steals every scene she’s in and her romance with Fogler’s Kowalski is surprisingly poignant and sweet.
There are other elements too, that not only make Fantastic Beasts a delightful film in its own right but help set up another great franchise. In the Harry Potter films, muggles never played much of a role except for the odious Dursley’s who only appeared at the beginning anyway. Here, the whole storyline revolves around how wizards and non-wizards exist side by side with one another and the inevitable tensions and difficulties that may ensue. But there’s also a chance for new connections as well. Fantastic Beasts is a fable not only about natural conservation but also a story of bigotry, repression, and the need for tolerance. And in these times, that lesson seems more vital than ever.
Top photo: Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures