How do you make a 'Harry Potter' movie without Harry Potter? Before the last of the eight films of J.K. Rowling's staggeringly popular universe five years ago, that must have been the conundrum facing Warner Brothers executives as they stared at the end of the line of their most lucrative franchise. And yet thanks to Rowling herself as well as series stalwart David Yates, there is once again new life to be found in the world of witchcraft and wizardry that she had dreamt up in the seven books of the boy wonder. The inspiration is one of Harry's textbooks at Hogwarts, an essential text which served as a guide to magical animals written by one Newt Scamander. Rowling had written it into a companion piece in 2001, but as those who had read the 128- page book will tell you, there is a lot more that Rowling must have had to add to her first movie script even as an adaptation of that earlier book.
That explains why the film's narrative feels like two parallel story lines, both of which are set in the 1920s in New York City. The first (and the one more obviously drawn from her text) concerns the magizoologist and former Hogwarts student's (Eddie Redmayne) arrival with a suitcase of magical creatures in tow. He's here to do field work for the titular book that he's writing, but no thanks to a mix- up involving a klutzy working-class 'no-maj' (meaning 'muggle' or ordinary, non-magical human) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), some of the beasts Newt keeps hidden in his suitcase – which is really a magical device enclosing a massive nature preserve – have escaped. Together with two comely female wizards, the struggling investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt and Jacob set out to chase down these creatures before they wreak more havoc on the city.
And yet their blithe adventure could not have taken place in a more complicated time – not only has the Magical Congress of the United States (or MACUSA in short) set out strict rules against the revelation of the existence of wizards and/or the wizarding world, its meticulously cautious Madam President (Carmen Ejojo) has outlawed the possession of all beasts. There is perhaps good reason though – the city is torn by a mysterious force purportedly to be that of an Obscurus, a dark and uncontrollable power manifested by wizards who have repressed (rather than being taught to control) their innate powers. Rounding out the second, and much darker, story is a missing dark wizard called Gellert Grindelward (Johnny Depp), which the opening prologue via numerous newspaper reels informs us has gone underground since his dark doings in Europe. It's no secret that Grindelward and by extension, Depp, whom we see only briefly at the end of the movie, will take up much of the acreage of the four other 'Fantastic Beasts' films that Yates and Rowling have planned.
Given how this needs to set the stage for the beginning of a new franchise, there is understandably yards of exposition and a lot of introductions to do within the just-over two hours it has. It also means that, aside from its city-shaking cataclysm of a climax, this is pretty much like an origin story, such that like the first 'Harry Potter' movie, one gets the distinct sense that it is holding back for bigger and hopefully even more intriguing things down the road.
Not to say that this first of a quintet isn't charming in and of itself; oh no, in fact, we are confident that Potter fans and newcomers alike will find much to love and beguile of the rich and fascinating fictional world that Rowling has created. Indeed, there is sheer delight in discovering the menagerie of creatures that Newt has hidden in his briefcase – among them a scene-stealing platypus with a penchant for stealing shiny things, a majestic avian which changes shape and size to fill any available space, and a tiny stick-like green insect that can pick locks. Before things get serious, the early scenes with Newt and his unlikely companions pop with escapist fun, not least when he and Jacob get caught in incriminating situations by law enforcement while pursuing their small, furry and oh-so-cute kleptomaniac around bank vaults and jewelry stores. It is also here that we get to savour more fully the effortlessly endearing Redmayne and Fogler, one quirkily adorable as the shy and slightly awkward boy-man and the other an unassuming bumbler whose wide-eyed wonder upon the world previously hidden from his eyes channels our very own.
Like how she did with Harry, Ron and Hermoine, Rowling gets a strong character dynamic going around the four cohorts, including a budding attraction between Newt and his Auror-turned-ally Tina as well as a gentle romance between Jacob and Queenie. It is these characters that anchor the busy plotting in the second hour with heartfelt emotion.
Even so, the beautifully ornate production design shines through every frame, whether a seedy underground jazz club with all manner of peculiar (if slightly grotesque) creatures to Manhattan's old City Hall subway station where the climax unfolds. The special effects are equally stellar, particularly the transition from our world to that inside the suitcase and a breathtaking scene where the Obscurus wrecks destruction across several of New York's skyscrapers before plunging into the City Hall station. And of course, the close-ups of the various beasts are just as visually stunning, some scary, some cuddly, some ethereal and some just downright goofy. Even without the appeal of adorable young children, 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' is pure enchantment, perfectly setting the stage for a whole new chapter of the wizarding world we've come to embrace through the 'Harry Potter' films. To call it fantastic may be slightly hyperbolic, but you'll be glad to know it doesn't fall too far short.
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