Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—J. K. Rowling’s 2001 book, proceeds
from which benefitted Comic Relief, wasn’t a novel or even a short story. It
was part of the Harry Potter
universe, a supposed textbook at Hogwart’s, credited to a certain Newt
Scamander, on the histories and habits of creatures of myth and folklore.
In her first produced screenplay, Rowling has a spun a tale inspired by this
work. In the 1920s, Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fanciful
creatures—magically clown-car full of them; some of them, like the rhino-esque
Erumpent, are gargantuan. Others, like the stick-insect-like Bowtruckle, are
tiny. Others, like the Demiguise, are invisible. Others, like the endearing
hedgehog-like Niffler, are compulsively acquisitive where small shiny objects
And so on. It isn’t long, of course, before a number of these creatures have
escaped the suitcase, and Scamander is faced with rounding them up. But of
course, this being Rowling, that’s not all there is to the story. That’s not
even half of the story.
The beasts, as it turns out, oddly aren’t the stars of Fantastic Beasts. The movie twists itself into a dauntingly
complex, obsessively imagined saga involving the magical authorities of the U.S., including a sort of magicians’ FBI led by
the scowling Graves (Colin Farrell). There’s
Tina (Kate Waterston), an outcast magical investigator who first arrests, then
allies herself with Scamander. There’s an anti-witchcraft sect led by a puritan
(Samantha Morton) and staffed by her spooky foster kids. And there’s the object
of Scamander’s visit to the Big Apple, a mysterious, destructive being called
Directed by David Yates, who helmed four of the Harry Potter flicks, the movie is an elaborate and impeccable piece
of big-studio craft. James Newton Howard’s music evokes an atmosphere of whimsy
taken seriously, and the production design and special effects are impressively
rich, despite the usual hint of CGI chilliness. As with the Harry Potter movies, I sometimes got a
little lost in the plot, but I was consistently entertained.
Despite the handsomeness of the production, and despite Rowling’s infectious
storytelling glee, it’s mostly to the credit of the actors that Fantastic Beasts cast its spell even on
a muggle like me. Redmayne and Waterston are a delightfully sheepish hero and heroine.
The soft-spoken Farrell, stalking around with his eyes on the ground in front
of him, makes an intense yet elegantly assured heavy—despite his excellent American
accent, he reminded me of James Mason in his darker mode.
But it’s Dan Fogler who really connects with the audience, as Jacob Kowalski,
a “no-maj” (American slang for a muggle) baker who gets caught up in the
adventure. The central function of Fogler’s character is to be our surrogate—to
be astonished, and get things explained to him. But Fogler’s capacity for
wonder makes him heroic, and when he’s stunned with love at first sight by Tina’s
gorgeous sister Queenie (the singer Alison Sudol), she’s stunned right back. The
two of them steal the movie, and that constitutes pretty grand larceny.