The Bock’s Office: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ a fun, frenzied watch
With about a decade of magic behind us, it seems like moviegoers wouldn’t be impressed by much. Yet, the scaly, slimy, feathery, clawed and horned denizens of hammerspace within “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” show it’s still possible to be amazed.
If you go…
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” rated PG-13
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 133 minutes
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler and Colin Farrell
In 1926, the latest visitor to New York City is British traveler Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young man holding more than a few secrets.
Yes, he may be a wizard, but besides that, he also carries with him a suitcase containing numerous unusual creatures the likes of which most people — especially those with no magical background — have never seen before.
Newt’s plans to stay incognito in The Big Apple hit a snag when he runs into an ordinary human (Dan Fogler) and unintentionally displays his magical talents. The incident draws the attention of an agent (Katherine Waterston) of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, yet that’s not even the worst outcome as due to a mix-up, his case is now in the wrong hands.
However, a menagerie of magical animals on the loose is far from the biggest crisis happening with a dangerous force sweeping across the city that’s a threat to wizards, witches and humans alike.
Bearing a quiet charm, a peculiar gait and a Hufflepuff scarf around his neck, Redmayne is just right as Newt, an up-and-coming magizoologist and Hogwarts alumnus who relates better to the many misunderstood monsters he keeps close at hand than he does with almost anything walking on two legs. And yes, his attachment to a clingy bowtruckle — best described as a sentient stalk of bok choy — slightly outweighs his interest in humanity.
Still, he’s got a good pal in Jacob Kowalski, Fogler a delightful presence as a No-Maj — the American term for Muggle, which there’s no excuse for you not to know by now — with dreams of opening a bakery who blindly stumbles into something he could have never imagined, even the most mundane wizard activities mind-blowing to him. A magical summoning charm may be neat to watch for the first time, but being pursued by a female erumpent ready for a mate? Not so much.
Waterston’s in good form as uptight ex-Auror Porpentina Goldstein, whose by-the-book approach to apprehending Newt never seems to go as planned as she works to appease her disapproving superiors at MACUSA, while her younger sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) drifts through her career. Of course, life is generally easier when you’re a Legilimens with a flirty personality.
In contrast to all the open-minded and magical folk, Samantha Morton is fearsome as Mary Lou Barebone, a puritanical proselytizer warning the people of New York about the impending dangers of witchcraft, beating the evil out of her adopted children, namely a poor soul named Credence (Ezra Miller).
Meanwhile, Colin Farrell does well as Percival Graves, Tina’s former boss who’s going to great lengths and any means necessary to find the source of darkness that’s terrorizing the city.
After eight previous movies that came from her novels, it’s somewhat of a surprise to know this is author JK Rowling’s first stint as a screenwriter, but even with a skeletal back story based on one of Harry Potter’s textbooks, she provides a rich narrative that’s a joyful return to the wizarding world and also manages to stand as something more than a prequel.
Newt Scamander may not have the same kind of bearing in his world as “The Boy Who Lived,” but with the awkward nature of Ron Weasley and the affinity for animals of Rubeus Hagrid, he’s at least as relatable as the kid with a lightning bolt scar. For that matter, he’s got his own niffler.
Teamed with veteran “Potter” director David Yates, Rowling revisits some of the stronger themes of the series with great success. How better to convey the dangers of repression and concealment — notably with an anti-magic group known as the Second-Salemers — than in a time period best known for speakeasies and other ways to thumb one’s nose at authority?
Most of the underground establishments of the Roaring Twenties probably weren’t run by goblins, but still…
With greater freedom to deviate from what’s already been written, “Fantastic Beasts” not only matches the magic created by the “Harry Potter” movies but even surpasses it in some ways. Plus, let’s be honest — us Yanks needed to know that wizards didn’t just exist overseas.
Thanks for the indulgence, Jo.
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