Mark Reviews Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jon Voight, Jenn Murray, Ron Perlman, Johnny Depp

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some fantasy action violence)

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 11/18/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 17, 2016

We return to the wizarding world created by author J.K. Rowling, during a time period several decades before the boy with the lightning-bolt scar was born. There's no reference to Harry Potter in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, although, within the film, one will sense the same sort of evil that pushed the boy wizard toward becoming a hero. We also find another outsider who becomes a reluctant hero, because, just as the kind of prejudice that fuels this villain (and will later fuel Harry's archnemesis) never really goes away, there's always someone or a group of people to fight it.

Prejudice and hatred wait—gathering strength unchecked, as good people go about their normal lives—until their moment emerges. Heroes, who never realize they are heroes until the time arrives, respond to the threat when required.

That's the connective thread barely tying together two plots that never quite connect, even when they're brought together—more or less by coincidence—during the film's climax. On the one hand, there's a chipper, imaginative, and amusing adventure featuring Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an awkward British wizard who's an expert on magical creatures (The connection to Harry is that the Scamander's textbook on the subject of these creatures will be part of the future hero's reading list at school). On the other, there's a dark and foreboding story about the destructive nature of bigotry and the self-destructive nature of repression.

The plots may never convincingly join in Rowling's screenplay, but separately, each one is effective in its own way. Scamander's quest to find and catch a quartet of beasts that have escaped his charge in the foreign expanse of New York City gives us a reason to admire the imagination of Rowling's world. The secondary tale, involving a radical group trying to expose witches and wizards to non-magical folks for punishment, forces us to see and acknowledge the darker side of this world and, hence, our own.

In 1927, Scamander has come across the pond to return a magical creature to its home in Arizona. He gets into some trouble after a greedy, platypus-like animal, with grubby paws and a very deep pouch that can hold a lot of shiny stuff, escapes from his magically spacious suitcase.

Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Auror (basically a magic cop) from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, detains Scamander for breaking the magical laws of the land, but his case has accidentally ended up in the possession of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a Muggle (or, in American English, No-Maj—as in "no magic"). As a result, a few more animals from Scamander's menagerie escape. The expert, the former Auror, and the Muggle team up to track down the creatures.

Director David Yates (returning to this franchise after helming the final four entries of Harry's adventures) approaches Scamander, his endeavor, and his cohorts with a light touch. There's wonder to a tour of the massive zoo contained within his suitcase, as room after room reveals a seemingly endless landscape that's appropriate for each of the beasts he has collected (In a theatrical touch, each room exists as its own stage, with the landscapes appearing limitless even though their confined to pieces of fabric). The hunts for the assorted creatures are boisterous, gag-filled setpieces, such as Scamander trying to catch the covetous platypus-thing in a storefront window display or Jacob accidentally dousing himself in the pheromones of a giant rhinoceros-hippopotamus hybrid, which happens to be in the mating mood.

Rowling offsets the colorful characters and bouncy action sequences with the politics and atmosphere of fear that is just beneath the surface of these pre-Depression salad days. The wizarding world is anxious about the disappearance of a violent witch-and-wizard supremacist named Grindelwald, who has gone into hiding. The American magic-folk government is on edge, and an anti-witch group, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), is trying to convince the world that some recent local disasters are the result of witches. Credence (Ezra Miller), one of Barebones' adopted children, is meeting with Percival Graves (Colin Graves), an Auror with the Congress, to find a powerful wizard who is trapped within Barebones' group.

This side of the film is all about mood—of the dread of the unknown, as well as the potential for violence from that panic, and of the agony of hiding one's true self. It's a dark vision (figuratively and, on account of Philippe Rousselot's shadow-rich cinematography in these scenes, literally) of the ways that fear—of others and oneself—divides us and, in the revelation of a mysterious entity of magical energy that forms when a wizard suppresses his or her powers, can wreak havoc on one's own self.

The specifics of the plot within this segment of the film, which mirror the notions of prophecy and a "chosen one" that became part of Harry's story, are fairly inconsequential. Rowling and Yates are more concerned with the psychological ramifications and, later, how that microcosm of prejudice and fear can lead to difficulties on a larger scale.

The film, then, is surprisingly ambitious in its thematic examinations, even if that ambition is hobbled by the other side of the film's competing stories. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film divided by its dueling aims—the fun escapade and the solemn allegory. Each one works well enough, so that's the good news.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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