Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.
I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future King. A Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).
Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.
Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:
- Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
- Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
- Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
- Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
- Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
- Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
- Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled in her own bureaucratic machinations;
- Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
- And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.
Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.
___________________Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.