Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them takes place in the same Harry Potter universe, but some seventy years before the boy-wizard would go off to school at Hogwarts (which means the Harry Potter stories took place in the ‘90s!). Premiering fifteen years after the first Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts stars Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a specialist in peculiar animals, and I’m not talking about various frog species. With this tale being set in the Harry Potter universe, these beasts are truly fantastic and creative examples of literally magical creatures. Newt keeps them in his suitcase, which, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is much bigger on the inside.
My favorite of these beasts is a hysterically funny little guy who looks like a platypus with an ornery love of money and all things shiny. It’s called a Niffler, and Newt winds up chasing him all over New York City. The Niffler gleefully robs and steals everything that’s not nailed down, stuffing the items into unseen pockets within his fur (and these pockets are also bigger on the inside, judging from the multitude of riches he can get in there). It’s meant to be a throwaway joke, but the Niffler nearly stole the movie for me.
With a screenplay by the creator of Harry Potter and his universe, J.K. Rowling herself, the story is slightly more ominous than the gee-whiz fairy tale trappings of the first Harry Potter film. While the first Harry Potter movie was more of a children’s story (with the HP series becoming darker and more mature with each sequel), Fantastic Beasts–with its mainly adult cast–strives for a more complex tale dealing with magic and prejudice on the streets of New York City that’s equally gripping and entertaining at the same time. This darker edge serves the film very well. Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, as well this summer’s superb The Legend of Tarzan, Fantastic Beasts still manages to drag in some spots, but its sympathetic characters, brought to life by a great cast, keeps you hooked.
Redmayne is very good at playing a main character who feels more comfortable around animals than people, while Katherine Waterson is great as Tina, his spunky sidekick. But the real revelation here is Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Kowalski and Queenie, respectively–the both of them are marvelous standouts in a fine cast that also includes Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller (the cinematic Flash from the DC superhero films), Samantha Morton, and Ron Perlman.
This is supposed to be the first in a five part movie series, and it winds up being a great setup film, because thanks to the well fleshed out characters–as well as the signs and portents of nefarious things to come–I wanted things to just keep going when it ended. If you’re looking for a fun, magical film for the entire family then grab yourself some giggle water and go find these fantastic beasts. –SF