Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

A spin-off from the Harry Potter books offers lots to look at but a thin story

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directed by David Yates
With Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell

J.K. Rowling wrote her first original screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spin-off of her amazingly successful Harry Potter series. The story takes place mainly in New York City in 1926, some 70 years or so before the Harry Potter stories take place. The wizardry school Hogwarts is mentioned in passing, as are some other loose connections to the Harry Potter world. The title Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them refers to a textbook supposedly written by Newt Scamander. The book was mentioned in passing in the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) appears in the film, and mentions he is writing a book. He is in the process of collecting magical animals, which he keeps in a big suitcase, and is looking for more rare animals in the United States.

But trouble is brewing. There is a large anti-magic sentiment, with street rallies and people handing out leaflets. It is not unlike the anti-alcohol rallies or radical political rallies of the time. Wizards and witches are very concerned about keeping a low profile to avoid more trouble. At the same time, some large, uncontrollable magical force is out of control in the city.

Scamander quickly get himself into trouble with the local association of witches and wizards, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), for being a bit too obvious and for breaking other rules.

J.K. Rowling in her script doesn't stray too far from her tried and true formula. Scamander quickly falls in with a somewhat diverse group. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) works at MACUSA. She is practical and ambitious. Her sister Queenie Goldstein can read minds and is a bit of a flapper, more interested in having fun but also very good natured. The fourth person in the quartet is a no-maj or muggle, who has no magical abilities. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) got his suitcase of pastries mixed up with Scamander's. Kowalski has a dream of getting out of the factory and opening up his own bakery.

The four of them try to catch some of Scamander's escaped beasts and also find out more about the evil magic that is afoot.

Looking pretty suspicious through all of this is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking official in MACUSA. Causing more complications is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted children, who are calling for a new round of witch trials.

The film at times gets a bit dark, with beatings of orphans over minor infractions of rules. There are other nightmarish scenes as well.

The film also relies a lot on computer effects. Presenting many of magical beasts is one of the main reasons for the film, and a lot of them are shown. Some are quite charming and funny. Others a bit more serious. Side plots involving the chase for the animals take us to fancy places and to Central Park at night.

But a lot of it is curiously uninvolving. Many of the scenes with the animals do little to advance the actual plot of the film. It is almost like there are two separate movies at once — a dark horror film about an evil force on the loose, and a light romantic comedy about mixed up suitcases and some people chasing colorful animals.

The Harry Potter films managed to attract a wide audience of adults and young people. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them seems more aimed at just a younger crowd who will be wowed by the computer effects and overlook the rather thin plot.

Newt Scamander, as played by Eddie Redmayne, is a bit of an introvert. He doesn't have the same everyman appeal that Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter has. The other main actors, especially Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski make up for it. Look for Ron Perlman under heavy CGI effects, and a cameo by another famous actor near the end.

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