The need for fantasy distraction becomes more urgent every day, and so you might not complain that “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” runs a smidgen long, allowing you to live in a magical world an extra 20 minutes or so. J.K. Rowling expanded a slim book into a multipart cinematic universe, and that is the film’s main drawback. Obvious scaffolding for future films strain the action at times, but the whole thing is tremendously fun, and four more films of these characters is a promising notion.
Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a shy English wizard passing through New York City with a magical suitcase full of the fantastic beasts he collects for study. The beasts are often misunderstood, and are outlawed in New York City, and he hopes to change this through the knowledge in the book he’s writing. Redmayne shambles convincingly into his role as a shy and unlikable eccentric, and his moments when he is surprisingly effectual are great fun.
Along the way, he switches cases with a baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the best character in the film. Once the “No-Maj” (i.e., non-magical) human winds up with a houseful of magical animals, a wild plot to contain the beasts and wipe his memory is underway. Newt and Jacob are pursued by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a no-nonsense agent in the American wizarding bureaucracy.
A larger conflict brews between the magical and non-magical realms, as the sinister Mary Lou Barebone (always-excellent Samantha Morton) leads an anti-witch movement aided by the various kids she adopted, and subsequently repressed and made miserable. Foremost among these poor souls is creepy Credence (Ezra Miller), who works behind the scenes with Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful leader of the wizard community. Together they search for a dark, unpredictable force that forms when young wizards repress their own magic. This force, the Obscurus, threatens both the magical and “No-Maj” worlds.
You can enjoy this film at different levels of Pottermania. You can delve deep into the differences between the American and British wizarding worlds, and scoop up the breadcrumbs that lead to the familiar future with Harry Potter and the gang. You can also simply delight in the spectacle of the fanciful beasts, and the great characters. The idea of a secret world of magic is certainly bewitching and, while most of the Harry Potter action takes place at Hogwarts among magic people, this film is primarily about the interaction and conflict between our world and the wizard world.
The charming baker who gets pulled into the magic, therefore, is our audience surrogate; his wonder is our wonder. Comedian Fogler is endlessly watchable as he meets the shy Newt, a vast collection of creatures and, above all, Porpentina’s gorgeous sister Queenie. Their interaction casts its own sweet spell, and the film’s best moments are when these four characters hit their stride together in their undertaking to find the Obscurus and keep the beasts safe.
When Newt, Porpentina, Jacob and Queenie overcome the film’s lengthy setup and get to the business of magic, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is as delightful, imaginative and wondrous an adventure as you can expect to see. The burden of the vast story behind and ahead of this film slows it down at times, but the concept of film “universes” seems to be here to stay. If you’re going to dwell in a universe, this is a gorgeous and delightful choice.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is now in theaters.
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