Last night and again today I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter prequel. It was just as good and maybe better ten hours later. What I like most about this movie is its mastery of contrast. Dark, rainy New York City in 1926 makes the sharpest possible contrast to a brilliant magic world hidden underneath and inside, stashed out of sight. There are going to be spoilers and excess verbiage in this review. Full disclosure: I have not read the book but I will now.
Newt Scamander, a British wizard played by Eddie Redmayne, disembarks from an Atlantic steamer with a dignified and well-worn suitcase that rattles suspiciously, with one broken and one good lock. He goes forth to New York City as a bumbling tourist, awkward scientist, and, most importantly to the plot, guardian of wild magic animals. I won’t drop too far into plot summary—please see this movie—because there’s much more I want to discuss, but a little background is necessary.
Mr. Scamander loses his first phantasmagoric charge in a giant bank, and as he tries to recover this creature (a marsupial blend of animal—platypus plus kangaroo plus crow) he crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (a “nomag” played by Dan Fogel—Brits call them muggles) and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an officer with MACUSA, the magical FBI—which is still hopelessly bureaucratic. Tina arrests Mr. Scamander for exposing magicians and leaving an outsider with his memory intact, and it’s revealed that Newt and Jacob have catastrophically swapped suitcases outside the bank. In the next scene, Kowalski opens the case inside his tenement and releases shimmering chimeras onto the streets of Manhattan.
As with most movies set in old New York, I both wanted to be there and didn’t; it was so creepy and so cool. The director, David Yates, worked Gotham’s Art Deco stairways, cloche hats, Marcel waves, and angular fedoras to full advantage. Using a dark palette for the streets and underworld of New York gave the characters’ faces more weight somehow—it felt, at times, like film noir. But add to this the triumph of CGI, which is now able to make cartoon physics a reality. When the fantastic moments are really opened up—the first happens when Newt leads Jacob down into his space-bending suitcase, where he protects hunted and endangered fantastic beasts—I was knocked out, left speechless and gaping. Magic worlds that real? The illustrators have become magicians. Newt and Jacob’s faces are kept somewhere in the shot as the animals are revealed, so the reactions of humans (and magicians) to magic are not lost.
Eddie Redmayne has a difficult task in this movie; he is the foreigner in a town where everyone is out to grift him. And he must interact the most intimately with CGI, as he is the friend and guardian of the beasts—he nuzzles them, carries them, talks with them. It all feels real, never forced or choppy. On top of this, he’s awkward with humans and magicians, more comfortable with beasts—but he must rely on other two-leggeds to save his menagerie, he must soften towards humans and magicians, who usually reject him. Redmayne is flawless and so very British. When he curses “Merlin’s beard,” I remembered that yes, Newt Scamander the magician is of the tribe of Merlin, probably a direct descendant. His unselfconscious love of fantastic beasts made me joyful throughout the film and especially in the central park scene, where he performs a serious mating dance with an escaped glowing rhinomegasaurus (not its real name).
Redmayne has a strong ensemble cast backing him up. Katherine Waterson’s character, Tina Goldstein, has been demoted at MACUSA and so she must be tough but humbled, a bit. Tina initially pegs Newt as a criminal who breeds and sells beasts. She soon realizes his heart is good and he’s no animal trafficker, but events have been set into motion. Her actions lead to their mutual arrest and near execution. A visitor to magic realms, Kowalski (Dan Fogel) is an affable character actor. He quickly changes from bewildered observer to agent inside this circle, which also includes Tina’s beautiful sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). She can read minds, works at MACUSA, and falls for Jacob.
Ron Perlman makes a notable appearance as the two-timing underworld boss Narlac. He reigns at a speakeasy; Tina taps out the secret knock with her wand and her crew is admitted through a winking lady in a poster, swinging on the moon. A Josephine Baker elf sings the blues, the bar is stocked with bizarre-o potions in dusty bottles, and the leading ladies wear gorgeous ’20s evening gowns. Once Narlac rats them out, magical G-men appear with fedoras pulled low over trench coats and jet black ties. Just like a gangster movie.
The only supporting actor who was not up to the job was Colin Farrell, in the role of Mr. Graves, a shady upper agent at MACUSA who orders Tina and Newt to be executed for treason (which he knows is false). In the very last scene he is unmasked—Graves is actually Grindelwald, a renegade wizard who wants war with humans. The back of Grindewald’s head is the first shot of the movie—so many plot twists take us this final reveal—and lo and behold, Grindelwald is played by Johnny Depp. It was almost like: hiding inside this mediocre actor is a good actor, biding his time.
I have skipped whole parts of the plot—there’s an anti-witch group spreading terror, there’s a demonic force wrecking havoc in New York (Newt’s beasts are blamed for this at first, but we find it’s the storming psyche of an abused and repressed teenage wizard), there’s some chemistry between Newt and Tina. Too much to fit in one review, but the plot comes together beautifully. I liked this movie far more than any of the Harry Potter movies or books. I was working at a now-defunct Borders Books when they came out and had a lot of free time behind the register to read. The books are creative and well written, and I admire J.K. Rowling’s approach towards the publishing world; she uses pen names occasionally, so as not to ride on the Potter series. Fantasy is hard to get right—I’ve tried my hand and given up many times.
What I didn’t enjoy about the Harry Potter books was, well, Harry Potter. It’s hard for me to care about a nosy 12-year-old boy and his tween friends, no matter how cool their school is. That’s why I loved Fantastic Beasts; it has all of the layered enchantment of the Harry Potter movies but with a tighter, older cast. Everyone’s a little jaded, it’s New York in the 1920s. And there’s a suitcase with a supernatural petting zoo inside.
Five stars out of five for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I love the CGI artists and costumers that worked on this movie, I love Eddie Redmayne, I love the lead cinematographer, I even love the executive producers who said yes, I will put up the money for this. Every single shot was beautiful to look at.