Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Directed by David Yates
If making America great again means ridding the country of wizards, I want no part of it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” set before the “Harry Potter” series but very much feeling like the familiar world J.K. Rowling created two decades ago. It serves as a timely, fitting, and all too sad allegory for the Jim Crow era, or today’s rampant Islamophobia epidemic, but “Fantastic Beasts” also finds a way to take your mind off the sorry state of our union for two pleasant hours—and for that we can all be thankful.
The year is 1926, and one-time Hogwarts student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is travelling to New York for the first time with a special mission, to release one of his many magical beasts back into its natural habitat. But beasts are illegal in America, and with good reason. Recently, one has been destroying buildings and infrastructure throughout the city. But Scamander thinks the culprit is something more sinister than any beast—another wizard. So he teams up with investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and a no-mag (or muggle, if you prefer the British slang) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to find the cause—and find some of the fantastic beasts that’ve escaped Scamander’s briefcase.
If ever there were an Oscar winner who could be sewn so seamlessly into the fabric of the Harry Potter universe, it’s Eddie Redmayne. The 34 year old’s boyish charisma and shameless willingness to do whatever it takes to become his character serves him well here. He likely won’t be attending the Oscars this year as anything other than a presenter, but seeing as “Fantastic Beasts” is likely to be among the year’s most financially successful films (in no small part because of Redmayne’s star power), I doubt he’ll mind. Katherine Waterston (“Steve Jobs”) has made quite a name for herself recently, and with good reason. As the ambitious and pragmatic everywoman, Waterston does her part to make “Fantastic Beasts” feel urgent and relevant, and not just the magical mystery tour it sometimes settles for. And Dan Fogler adds some much needed comic relief. He’s the Ron of this familiar-feeling trio of heroes (which makes first-class charmer Alison Sudol, playing Porpentina’s sister Queenie, the Ginny).
But “Fantastic Beasts” is just the first of five in a new franchise reboot, spanning the next fifteen years. Sadly, this one feels like a large, jumbled introduction. Sometimes, it’s a lot to handle. Special effects become a crutch. It looks darn pretty, but maybe less obnoxious next time, eh? No matter. For an end of the season summer blockbuster, “Fantastic Beasts” is sure to put a spell on newcomers and die-hards alike. I’ve been an outspoken critic of J.K. Rowling’s tendency to coast on old fame, but now that she’s creating new material I can’t wait to see what this franchise has in store.