“Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”

 

            This film is a testament to the incredible creative imagination of J.K. Rowling, and also to the wonderful CGI technology that now almost literally means, “If you can think it, we can project it.”

            In case you didn't know, J.K. Rowling is the (English) author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series.  This film is a sort of “prequel” to Harry Potter, and it takes place not in England, but in New York City, somewhere in the 1920's.  It assumes some of the same worldview as the Harry Potter series:  in general, that there are some talented people out there who have real magic at their disposal, but there is a dark side to their ancient craft, as well, and they all think that the No-Maj (no magic) people need to not know what's going on, because they'll overreact and start witch hunting.  These modern “wizards” do use wands, but not broomsticks.  And they can also summon some very strange-looking creatures that aren't found anywhere in nature;  mostly benign but oftentimes quite mischievous.

            It's in search of one of these escaped little creatures that Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), having just arrived in New York from Great Britain by steamship, scours the streets and sidewalks looking for a beaver-like creature that likes to swallow bling, you know, bright jewelry.  He's quickly discovered by Ms. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who's kind of in the ranks of the American magicians but also on the outs with them right now.  A No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) gets mixed up with them, inadvertently---he was only trying to get a loan for his bakery at the bank, but was turned down, and accidentally switched briefcases with Newt.

            True to Rowling subplots, there's a guy who seems to be both in a position of authority and sympathetic to the cause, but is not what he appears.  The dapper Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is actually working against them, because he's trying to control the “dark” power that's housed inside a man-child named Credence (Ezra Miller), who's socially withdrawn at least in part because of his ill treament at the hands of his Suffragette mother.  Also true to Rowling subplots, there's just a little hint of romance, but it's largely unexpressed, first between the No-Maj (called “muggle” in Britain) Kowalski and a mind-reader magician (Alison Sudol)---she falls for him because she knows he's pure of heart---and then, for just a touch-the-hair-gently moment, between Newt and Porpentina.  But really, we're too focused on the chase sequences and the CGI magic to bother much with character development.  The magicians are also still capable of waving their wands and erasing their presence from the memory of civilians who might have interacted with them.  Wouldn't that be handy at times?

            There are some really whimsical parts here, like when some of the magicians set the table for dinner, and the plates and utensils just float in the air to their appointed spot.  The CGI capability of backwards sequencing makes it possible for the magicians to “undo” much of the damage done by the dark forces, so New York City gets restored to its bustling, pre-Depression prosperity.  But we're not really nostalgic here, for New York or even for the 1920's, just telling a magical tale in a previous time about mythical creatures, and doing it with stunning cinematography.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Do you think every power has a dark side?

2)                  When have you seen a hint of romance that never quite materialized?

3)                  When have you ever wondered if some magic is real?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association