The obvious anti-Fascist sentiment of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a film that’s arriving just as the U.S. attends a major political shift – should make it seem like the movie of the moment. But it’s not quite a film for any specific moment.
While this Harry Potter spin-off – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them includes some charming and sometimes astonishing special effects – and was adapted by J.K. Rowling herself, using her 2001 faux-textbook of the same name as a jumping-off event – ultimately, it really is only dragon food, a product conceived to convey much more of something that audiences are dying for.
There’s nothing innately wrong with that. But the film – directed by David Yates, who also provides us the last four terrific Harry Potter films – seems both sprawling and crowded like it were trying to pack too much of mythology into one cramped picture.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a prequel, set years before Harry Potter was even a ray of zig-zag-lightning-shaped-scar in his parents’ eye, it’s the 1920s version of New York, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a “magizoologist” with profound knowledge of all sorts of mystical creatures, is just arriving from London. Stateside, it’s a troublesome time: the underground wizard community is under a major threat, because a whirling black whatchamacallit has been paving a path of mass-destruction through the New York City streets.
To protect their ranks, the wizards must try their best to hide their powers from the No-Majs (the American term for Muggles). It doesn’t help that a extreme group, led by Samantha Morton’s evil prim Mary Lou Barebone, is out to tear the wizards’ ranks apart. Also, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is nowhere to be found – in case you happen to find that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn’t have enough story plot details for you to digest.
Scamander steps into this mess, aiming to discover some new magical beasts and protect those that have become endangered. He coincidentally carries a number of such creatures in his mystically bottomless suitcase, though their misbehavior ends up putting him, and his new friends, in a great deal of problems. Those misadventures involve an earnest, friendly No-Maj and aspiring baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); Tina Goldstein (Katharine Waterston), a “Statute of Secrecy” enforcer who misunderstands what Scamander is try to do and attempts to turn him in to the wizarding officials; and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a lovely flapper-girl who owns ability to read minds as efficiently as a edacious grade-school reader tearing her way through all seven Harry Potter books.
There’re so much details in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that after the first act, you almost can’t be bothered to care what happens next. But in the movie’s world, there’s a magical explanation for everything, meaning, story logic often gets left by the wayside. And even though the movie moralize tolerance, its concept never quite forms. Yet, Yates and Rowling are trying to work their charm on us, and some of it sticks: If Redmayne’s performance is just too adorably perfected, Fogler and Sudol nails their roles like pros.
About the beasts? They’re often pretty fantastic like the title. A puffin-type creature with an affinity for petty theft, a sort-of rhino-hippo creature whose bumpy face glows as if lit from inside, an sophisticated green twiglike being whose demeanor is shy though his actions are brave: These are just some of the friends who live in Scamander’s incredible suitcase, which opens up into its own giant polychrome world of wonder. Most important of all is a majestic, grand griffin with a noble brow and feathers brushed with gold. This CGI art is the real deal of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, though not a single word came out from him. His magic doesn’t need windy explanatory exposition, which is why it’s easy to adore him best.