Friday, November 18, 2016


Opening today:

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemJ. 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 are concerned.

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 an “Obscurial.”

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.

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