3 stars (out of 4)
There’s a trick to enjoying a Harry Potter spinoff: Don’t think of it as a Harry Potter spinoff.
Go ahead. Use a magic wand and temporarily obliterate the memory of those seven movies. Though author J.K. Rowling has reopened her chamber of secrets — she adapted a textbook that all pupils at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry must study — this film bears little resemblance to the awestruck adventures of you-know-who. Prepare to learn a unique set of characters, words and mysteries. And within the new universe lies enough quality entertainment to charm fans of all ages.
OK, most ages.
New York City, 1926. A British magizoologist named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived with good intentions and a leather suitcase full of mischievous monsters. Boy, did he pick the wrong time to go stateside. A series of dangerous events has the local wizards and witches fearful that they could be exposed to the No-Majs (i.e., the American word for Muggles, i.e., nonwizards). A war is possible.
An uneasy situation intensifies after Newt’s creatures are accidentally unleashed all over the city. That’s a big no-no and a serious breach of the Statute of Secrecy. Now Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the director of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, blames him for wreaking havoc in the community. To clear his name (and rescue his little buddies), Newt unites with a bighearted, hapless baker (Dan Fogler); an ambitious former Statute of Secrecy agent (Katherine Waterston); and her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol). And while they’re at it, these outsiders also try to save NYC from sinister forces.
Sooo … cute children aren’t learning how to play Quidditch at Hogwarts. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, has layered a sophisticated and surprisingly dark origin story that will appeal more to grown-ups than the younger set. The unlikely and eerily timely issue of segregation is front and center, as Newt’s beasts are considered dangerous (by the government, no less) just because they’re different. It turns out that they’re harmless, while some of the magical adult humans are capable of death and destruction.
This is heady stuff for small kids used to skipping through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter tourist attraction. Most of the material will surely fly over their heads. Some of the imagery — especially in the last act — is frightening
This is a risky move on Rowling’s part and, frankly, it’s not always the right one. The most delightful scene is when Newt simply takes out all the overgrown beasts secretly stuffed into his unassuming leather satchel! These animals, especially the long-snouted adorable Niffler, put the wildlife on the Nat Geo channel to shame. Even the silver eggs are exotic. (Side note: Why wasn’t this shot in 3-D? The dazzling special effects could have jumped off the screen.) Newt also has a knack for furiously waving his magic wand to get him out of trouble at precisely the right second. The movie could have used more of that wholesome, gee-whiz sense of wonder and a bit less exposition. Rowling’s own source material, a 2001 booklet, is a mere 128 pages long — there’s no need to stretch it out to a 132-minute epic stocked with five endings.
Four more installments are in the pipeline. It will be interesting to see how Rowling can stretch out this franchise. Redmayne, looking away from the camera and incoherently mumbling his lines, still needs to flesh out his character to avoid becoming a bundle of flitty mannerisms. Waterston (Steve Jobs) makes virtually no impact, disappearing into the role for all the wrong reasons. The standout here is Fogler, the lovable No-Maj lug, who brings out the best in his costars. And though Farrell’s villain does the job with ease, the ever-so-brief tease of a more dangerous enemy is an ultratantalizing appetite whetter. Dozens of fantastic beasts aside, don’t underestimate the power of a real human drama.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens Friday, November 18.
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