When we last left the theatrical world of J.K. Rowling — derived from the books involving a certain boy with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead — the screen adaptations had sunk into darker thematic territory in order to reflect its hero’s progression into maturity. For the Harry Potter films, the stuff got pretty grim as it ultimately reached its finale, given there was an aging audience — likely the people who had grown up with the books — to which the series had to adjust its attitude. Dreariness is usually where these young-adult-novels-turned-movies start from the get-go these days — Harry’s felt appropriately built up and earned. It’s what The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), the apparent finale for the legacy and probably the most somber of all its installments, understood so well. In a post-Batman v. Superman movieland, it’s always acceptable for a cinematic attempt to be cheery (and actually good), but if there’s another, more important lesson we can learn from Hogwarts and Co., it’s that kids (and adults) will latch onto characters, and not necessarily the sulking fistfights that Zack Snyder insists upon.
Now, more than five years after the eighth and (at the time) final film in the franchise, the titular mouthful Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them brings Rowling’s universe of wizardry back to its following in a new sort-of-prequel (based off of Rowling’s book of the same name — she writes the screenplay here). Among other things, it’s a return to the original form for the series (albeit with a tame PG-13 rating), when Harry Potter made for a nice little family movie. Essentially, it’s an excuse to yet again introduce the bewildered newbie to the diverse stage of spells and potions, along with his inevitable, and enjoyable, clumsiness. In other words, it’s a clean slate with new characters halfway across the world. David Yates’s direction is certainly dialed to a lighter tune than the bleak outlook of Deathly Hallows, though it is in no shortage of its predecessor’s resonance — these characters are ones we can care about.
That clumsy newbie mentioned above is portrayed here by Jacob Kowalski (newcomer Dan Fogler). In the books we’ve become so familiar with, we’d call Kowalski — a blue collar factory worker looking for a kick-starter for his own bakery — a muggle, an Everyman unaware of the hi-jinks of wizardry. In 1920’s America (Fantastic Beasts takes place a couple decades before Harry’s story starts), Jacob’s kind is known as the “No-Maj,” a phonetic muddling of “no magic” (very American-sounding, very fitting). We’re told of his economic grievances soon enough; the movie rather quickly shoves our main characters together into the same frame, and early on Kowalski crosses paths with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British native concealing his wizard powers upon arriving in New York. Scamander — think mad scientist mixed with Charlie Brown — has just completed a field study on the weird creatures of the earth’s wilderness. Being one for tricks, he’s been keeping them in his suitcase.
Trouble ensues once these critters become loose in the city — assuredly, the humans pose more danger to peace than the animals do. The No-maj community of New York can’t be trusted to react rationally to what they aren’t familiar with yet, and the newly acquainted Scamander and Kowalski must keep the break-out under wraps and scoop the creatures back up before the Magic Division of the United Nations equivalent and its sketchy director Mr. Graves (Colin Farrell) blow the incident out of proportion. The two are offered assistance by an understanding employee at the Magical Congress, Tina (Katherine Waterston), who means well but sticks out like a sore thumb. Her similarly magic-savvy sister (singer Alison Sudol) is a seductive nightlife-esque woman; she is there to turn stupid men into goo.
The players are simple, both in their backstories and personalities. They’ve each felt their own heartbreak, and the film pays visit to the past without overdoing it. Of course, Kowalski’s learning process doubles as the plot-heavy explanation for wizardly procedure over here in America (Scamander and Tina feel too sorry for the poor sap to have him “obliviated” — having one’s memory wiped clean of all things magic, usually to keep a No-maj from knowing too much), but his conclusions come to the right focal points, establishing the intentions of Scamander and Tina to educate and serve the public, both magic and non-magic, at the center. There are a surprisingly sturdy handful of performances in this regard; Redmayne’s oddball stature makes him comfortably fit for the role, but Waterston’s multi-dimensional delivery is enough to return chemistry.
The original series had its deeper meanings throughout, mostly dealing with cultural resolve. Those same themes reappear in this feature, though they feel a little more explicit in current post-election America. Not to say that they don’t work — the fact that we can point out the parallels between the mistrust circling benevolent wizards in New York and our own country’s recent and questionable approach toward immigration means that the film is able to do its job. Fantastic Beasts is appreciatively civil toward its shady characters (it deals a symbolic anti-wizard affiliation with adequate representation); the only evils worthy of being dehumanized are “dark lords,” which, like Darth Vader and Hanz Gruber, are allowed to be uni-faceted in cinema. While it’s thankfully a sensitive movie, it doesn’t mind lightening up and showing the diversity that our society should be happy with. Remember, it’s the 1920’s; set-wise, there’s a lot to like here.
Though Fantastic Beasts mostly freshens up its big-budget stench, it reminds you in the darnedest of places that you can almost never get a stand-alone blockbuster in 2016 (somehow when the movie you’re watching is a spin-off in itself). Even when we’re expecting it to leave the door open for a sequel (Fantastic Beasts is expecting four more), the film closes with a cop-out. I’ve found some pleasure in realizing that, despite magic’s extensive bounds in these movies, it still hasn’t been able to solve all problems. For this picture’s conclusion, it appears to do just that, rather unsatisfyingly.
Oh well. Kudos to the film for wrapping up its character relationships in a sweet manner, despite its carnivorous purge of destruction toward the end. The human population arguably isn’t any closer to coming to terms with their wizard counterparts, but pieces of Fantastic Beasts are able to give them the guide. By its last scene, we’ve already gotten close enough to these characters to realize that they aren’t vying for the sympathies of a few cast members, but many in the… let’s say, No-maj world.
I’ve never found out exactly what comes out of a wand when it’s, for a lack of a better word, fired. Spells are more of a visual stimulation rather than a technicality, as is this film’s new addition of teleportation (it’s well-made, and cool). Kids get the picture. If Fantastic Beasts hits home, they may get the bigger one. Hopefully, the adults get it too.
Block Rating: ✭✭✭