US Release Date: Friday, November 18, 2016
America. If there was something the magical world of J. K. Rowling’s Potterverse needed, it was apparently America, and old timey America at that.
Our scene is Prohibition-era New York. Arriving on a ship from England — it was in the trans-Atlantic passenger ship days; kids watching this movie will have no idea what is going on — is the colorfully named Newt Scamader (Eddie Redmayne), an indiscriminate lover of magical creatures great and small. I mean, there are animal lovers and then there is Newt. He and Hagrid would have been fast friends.
Much is afoot in the city of New York, but we are mostly concerned with the manufactured outrage of moral crusader Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who is convinced witches be among them and will not suffer such a one to live. And when I tell you that this saintly do-gooder is in possession of three skittish adopted children laboriously named Chastity (Jenn Murray), Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove) and Credence (Ezra Miller), it will not surprise you at all to learn that she is a secret Dolores Umbridge.
Other unsavory characters populate this world, like banking magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and his son, a senator (Josh Cowdery), who get unwittingly entangled in a magical menace. Because a menace there is, in the form of an Obscuris, a kind of mini-The Nothing that goes about obliterating anything in its path because its maker has tried to suppress their magic too long.
Newt also loves Obscurises. (Obscuri? Surely obscuri.) He carries one around with him in his bag.
Yes, Newt has a bag full of fantastic beasts — turns out the “where” of where to find them is in his carry-on — and through a mix-up so well-trodden as to be the most hackneyed thing ever penned by J. K. Rowling (and she had Harry Potter knocked unconscious in pretty much every book) the creatures wind up with the wrong person, kind-hearted baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). All too soon, no-maj Jacob is thrust into the wizarding world, becoming Newt’s new best-friend and falling in love with a witch called Queenie (Alison Sudol).
The golden-haired Queenie is beautiful and coquettish, and it’s very much a My Sister Eileen situation, with her sister Tina (Katherine Waterston) a diligent but disgraced member of the Magical Council of the USA, and brunette with it. (MAGCUSA; Rowling loves her acronyms.) You really want to like Tina, she is all moxie and women’s suffrage and straight talking and doing what’s right, but she suffers from a terrible case of bad accent-itis, which makes it hard to take her seriously, an ailment even more pronounced when she is in a scene with Eddie Redmayne and Waterston’s native Englishness is fairly bursting to come out.
No more than Colin Farrell’s Irishness, though, as he investigates magical disturbances on behalf of MAGCUSA as the debonair Graves, but his accent troubles have more of an in-story excuse, which is all the spoiler-ing on that topic you will get from me.
One of the most refreshing things about seeing our wizards and witches in action here is that these are not neophytes who have just learnt a spell out of a book and are hoping it works out. These mages are thoroughly confident in their abilities, which makes the magical battles (and yes, of course there are magical battles) quite thrilling, even if slightly less incredible. It is the difference between watching an NBA game and a JV high school championship. It is exciting to see Kobe dunk the ball; it is amazing when a tenth grader does it. But whatever joy of discovery we have lost here in the absence of, as for example, Hermione Granger, we gain in the introduction of a muggle — no maj — as a main character, navigating this unseen society and being thrust so thoroughly into the unbelievable.
So, this return to the (pre-)Potterverse. Is it a worthy successor/progenitor? Oh, certainly, especially given the slim faux-reference volume on which this story is hung. We have conspiracies and unlikely heroes and intriguing creatures and budding romances. There is a darkness rising, and a governing body in turmoil, and some glorious CGI that both captivates and repels. It is also wondrous to revisit this magical world not knowing — suspecting, yes, but not knowing — what is going to happen next, kind of like watching Harry Potter fan fiction brought to life.
But, like, really good fan fiction.
Adventure Fantasy | PG-13 | 133 minutes
Written by J. K. Rowling | Directed by David Yates
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell